Joseph Hollis spent 26 years in prison. When he was paroled, he was eager to make the most of the life in front of him. In less than a year Joseph transitioned from convict to valedictorian of his class at UEI College in Encino.
“There are difficulties in telling my story,” he admits. “It is a significant aspect of who I am and where I’ve come from to what I’ve achieved.”
Before he went into prison at the age of 23, Joseph had been working in the computer industry. After more than two decades behind bars, he found the cost to re-enter that business was outside of his range. He had no idea what he was going to do with his life and very little support to move forward.
A friend encouraged him to learn a trade and with a quick online search Joseph found the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) Program at UEI College in Encino and decided to enroll. His first conversation with the campus president set the tone.
“I told him we would accept him, and he was thrilled,” said Jackie Aziyzan, Senior Campus President for UEI College Encino. “I asked if he was excited and who was going to come to his graduation when he finishes. He said, ‘I don’t have anybody.’ I said ‘Guess what? You have us. I tell all my students you are joining the Encino family. Just like a family we can be tough on each other, but he took every inch of my guidance very seriously.”
Being told he was family, and then feeling accepted when he entered the classroom, was a big deal for Joseph.
“The best part of the program wasn’t part of the program at all, it was just the utter acceptance I got from both students and staff,” he said. “They saw that we were helping each other and nothing else matters. The aspect of family was huge for me. Words cannot encompass how good it felt to be there and have the welcoming spirit and to be told that was even more significant.”
Joseph very quickly proved to be a dedicated student. He had perfect attendance and his grades kept him on the honor roll. After just a few months in the program, Jackie offered him a work study position working in the campus tool room. He also volunteered for the school’s mentor program.
“I learned a long time ago that by explaining to others, I gained a deeper understanding myself,” Joseph said. “By teaching others, I learned. It forced me to learn more, faster, and it propelled me to be better.”
‘I AM WORTHY OF SUCCESS’
Even as he poured his heart into his education, Joseph struggled just like any other student.
“I remember the first nights passing by in such a blur, struggling to understand what I was being told, what I was reading, grappling with the concepts that are so much easier for others,” he said in his valedictorian speech. “I remember moving from the basic classes over to the advanced lab and feeling so far behind everyone else. Outwardly I tried to show confidence, understanding, comprehension, but really, I was lost.”
With each challenge Joseph reminded himself of all he had overcome already and the staff at the school continued to push him to move forward.
“He had his moments, when he was doubting himself and what he was doing here,” Jackie said. “We just picked him up and said ‘You just started this and you’re going to finish it. It’s not up for discussion.’ I just love change. I love seeing my students make change.”
In the end it was all who doubted him that really propelled Joe to keep going when things got tough.
“I found a way to prove all of the haters wrong,” he wrote in his speech. “I was not going to be defined by them. I take every bad thing that has ever happened, or been said, to me, and I use it as motivation to be better. I do this because I know that I am worthy of success, I am worthy of achievement, I am worthy of happiness and joy, I am worthy of having peace of mind.”
‘UEI GAVE ME THE TOOLS TO HAVE A FUTURE’
By the end of the program Joseph was an outspoken ambassador for the school. He still returns often to share what he is learning in the workforce and to tell current students to keep moving forward.
“I tell the students that we are a reflection of each other,” he said. “If I mess up where I’m at and I ruin the name of the school, that decreases their opportunity to get a job from there, just as if you go somewhere and you do something that destroys the name, it makes it that much more difficult for me to find work. I want to see the students do their best and leave with the most information possible, so we all benefit each other. We are a community.”
Joseph was offered a full-time job with a major grocery chain, doing commercial HVAC work for all their stores. He is incredibly grateful for all who took a chance on him to allow him to be where he is at today.
“It’s incredible. UEI gave me the tools to have a future,” he said. “UEI gave me the education that I could build on for what I’m doing now that allows me to have a car, buy groceries when I want. It’s something I didn’t think I would be possible. It’s because of the staff at UEI. It’s because of my motivation and because of the chance that not only UEI, but that this company is taking on me. Everybody has just been giving me that hand up and the chance. I want to use that opportunity to prove them right in their assessment, their faith, and their decision to take a chance.”