Molly Yeselson ’23 Advances Education Access for Incarcerated Students

By Emily Glory Peters

Molly Yeselson '23 Racial Justice and Equity Fellow
Molly Yeselson’ 23 has been named one of Scripps’ 2022–2023 Racial Justice and Equity Fellows

. It’s a defining characteristic of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) work, and a concept that writing and rhetoric major Molly Yeselson ’23 finds deeply personal.

Since childhood, she’s confronted complex medical issues leading to countless tests, procedures, and surgeries. When her health took a turn for the worse during her first year at Scripps, doctors suggested she transfer to Georgetown University where her mother is a professor—but Yeselson was adamant on one day returning to Scripps. After two years waiting for her health to stabilize, the pandemic presented the much-needed option to study remotely. Her experience has been a commentary on education access, and is the heart of her research as one of Scripps College’s newest Racial Justice and Equity Fellows.

“Racial and social justice is something I’ve been concerned about long before I matriculated to Scripps,” says Yeselson. Raised in Washington, DC, she attended Georgetown Day School (GDS), the independent school caught in the critical race theory crosshairs during Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing this year. Citing Justice Jackson, Yeselson says GDS gave her a “rigorous progressive education dedicated to fostering critical thinking, independence, and social justice.”

“At GDS, I attended multiple social justice conferences, including the Student Diversity Leadership Conference, and was the youngest person to receive the Edith Nash Equity and Justice Award,” she says. “I was the president of Rainbow, GDS’s gender and sexuality alliance, and was involved in starting both the adoption and LGBTQ+ affinity groups.”

That preparation led her to enroll in “Inside-Out” classes organized by The Claremont Colleges’ Justice Education Initiative.

Modeled on the program developed by Temple University, the classes bring traditional “outside” college students and “inside” incarcerated students together for undergraduate coursework. Working with her inside–outside peers and Professor of Writing and Chair of Scripps’ Department of Writing Kimberly Drake, Yeselson will use her fellowship funding to develop a handbook on how to run a prison-based writing center.

Helping Incarcerated Students Change Their Futures Through Writing

Yeselson’s fellowship is the result of a $1 million dollar gift from Scripps Trustee and parent Gale Picker P’14, P’19. Aimed at advancing antiracism at Scripps and beyond, the gift has been used to fund several initiatives, including the fellowship. This year, Yeselson joined two other Scripps College students, Mica Barrett ’23 and Lizbeth Valdivia-Jauregui ’22, to pursue new scholarship on related racial justice topics.

“The goal is to establish a writing center at the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) in Norco, California,” says Yeselson, emphasizing the significance of having incarcerated students lead the effort. “There aren’t that many writing centers in prisons, but when there are, they’re often run by professors or volunteers. We don’t want that dynamic. We want the writing center to be self-sustaining where current students and alumni of Pitzer’s Inside-Out Pathway-to-BA (a program enabling inside students to earn their bachelor’s degree) will serve as lead tutors and train future tutors.”

Planning to publish the handbook, Drake and Yeselson envision the project as a guide focused on literacy and writing center operations in a carceral setting. The handbook will also feature insights from notable writers.

“I’ll be interviewing various authors to get their perspective and advice on writing, especially under difficult circumstances,” says Yeselson. “They won’t be motivational, per se, but more like short essays interspersed throughout the handbook.”

Investigating the Links Between Race, Education Access, and Incarceration

Though chiefly a disability advocate, Yeselson says Inside-Out has deepened her understanding of how others are excluded from higher education, noting how race, education access, and imprisonment intersect. And while not her ideal, Yeselson notes that remote study via Zoom has allowed her to access her education even from the hospital, and its use by Inside-Out has ensured her incarcerated peers have the human interaction they need to press on with their studies.

“One of my inside peers earned six associate’s degrees inside before getting his BA through Pitzer last year. He also did an independent study in astrophysics with a Keck professor, since no such class was being offered at CRC,” she says. “The extremely high cost of The Claremont Colleges is prohibitive for many prospective students. This is why it’s so exciting that the Inside-Out courses and Pitzer’s Inside-Out Pathway-to-BA program remove that financial barrier for my inside peers. They have so many things to contribute to both the classroom and society in general.”

Knowing college education drastically lowers recidivism rates, Yeselson sees the handbook as a disruptor: part of Inside-Out’s effort to debunk stereotypes and erode the systemic barriers that can keep inmates in a cycle of imprisonment. She’ll continue work on the fellowship project over the summer and incorporate it into her senior thesis when she returns to in-person learning at Scripps this fall—something she says she’s thrilled about.

In her gratitude for the opportunity, Yeselson also hopes for a day where DEIJ work at Scripps isn’t defined by a dedicated Racial Justice and Equity Fellowship, but is fully funded and embedded in Scripps’ culture.

“This fellowship fund is not just about race. With my project race is there, but it’s primarily about equity and access to education,” she says. “It’s all connected.”

Scripps’ Racial Justice and Equity Fellowships help students and faculty advance antiracist work on campus and in the community. To make a gift, please click here.