In September of 2020, when Kenneth Wheeler was released from prison after serving an 11-year sentence, he immediately got to work building a new life for himself – a life based around hard work, education and redemption.
Kenneth was a different man than the one who first stepped foot into prison more than a decade earlier, he said, and he felt prepared for the challenges he would soon face.
“I started [my new life] by having faith in myself,” he said. “I came from a life of doubt and I didn’t believe in myself and know exactly who I was as a person. I was busy trying to be someone else. But, I found myself repeatedly going to work and going to school in [prison]. It was practice – setting a routine – so it would be second-nature to come out and do this.”
Many of the classes Kenneth took while incarcerated were in heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC). He earned multiple EPA certifications while taking those courses, but he knew he still had a ways to go if he was to have a successful, long-term career in HVAC.
“I used to always see on my TV all kinds of commercials with UEI on there,” Kenneth said. “Well, I always wanted to continue school, so once I got out, I immediately shifted into overdrive. I did a tour at UEI and told them I want to get into HVAC to further my education.”
Kenneth’s plan paid off. After completing the UEI College HVAC program in July of this year, he was hired as a full-time installer at a local HVAC company – a career which he says gives him good pay and great benefits.
“Kenneth was always such an amazing help to our staff and always went the extra mile,” said Sasha Bracamonte, Associate Director of Student Affairs at UEI’s Ontario campus. “He showed great leadership skills, and I have no doubt he will succeed in his chosen field!”
FINDING MOTIVATION FROM BELIEVING IN HIMSELF
As a kid, Kenneth said he was separated from his mom and dad and sent to live with his grandparents. He didn’t understand why, and though he generally got good grades in school and was a pretty good athlete, he let this confusion build into anger and resentment, which sometimes affected his actions.
“My grandparents saw the potential in me, but I was so built up with anger,” he said. “I didn’t understand why I was in the position I was in at a young age and why I wasn’t with my family, so I had to try to search and see who I was as a person.”
This journey led him in a bad direction, which resulted in his incarceration. But, his grandparents’ belief in him inspired him to buckle down and work to change the direction of his life. That belief continued to inspire him after they passed away.
“Once they died while I was in there, it hurt me a lot,” Kenneth said. “I had the potential, but I didn’t see it in myself. But, they believed in me when I couldn’t even believe in myself. I took that with me and was able to do what I needed to do.”
Kenneth learned about an HVAC program that was being taught in his section of the prison, and he jumped at the chance to learn a trade. The HVAC program at UEI not only complemented this training, but it took it to a new level.
“My first impression was this was not like the classes in prison,” he said. “This was something I could actually deal with. In prison, there were models we could work on, but we were limited. I really didn’t get the hands-on and actual experience I would have liked to because of that hindrance. At UEI, there was more hands-on, more equipment, more freedom, and the instruction was great.”
THE CULMINATION OF HARD WORK & COMMITMENT
Kenneth said the constant help and encouragement he received from HVAC instructors Joseph Cook, Ignacio Gutierrez and Angel Villalon helped him remain driven and focused on his goals.
“You can always tell when you go to school whether [instructors] are just there for the paycheck or if they’re really there to help you – if they’re concerned and really want you to get it,” he said. “These three showed a lot of concern for us. They never belittled you or made you scared to asked questions. They made it so that it was respectful and everyone was worth something.”
Kenneth excelled in the classroom and soon became a UEI Student Ambassador. That role, he said, provided him with a great opportunity to return some of the respect and motivation he felt in the classroom.
“As an Ambassador, whenever they needed help around the campus, that’s what I needed to do to give back to my community,” he said. “I felt human there, and I felt like family. That made me want to give back even more.”
“Kenneth not only did well with his academics in class, but also showed great Leadership skills as one of our Campus Ambassadors,” said Joseph Cook, HVAC Department Chair at UEI Ontario. “Other students always looked up to him and was someone I knew I could rely on. He will do nothing but amazing things in his future!”
As a student at UEI College, Kenneth build a solid foundation of knowledge and skills that was so attractive to his current employer that he was hired on the day of his interview.
His education has continued throughout his employment as the company he works for puts a lot of time and effort into training people in the field. It’s just the type of job he was looking for, he said, a testament to all the hard work he put into turning his life around over the last few years.
“There’s a lot of steps you have to take to be whatever you want to be in life,” Kenneth said. “It’s sometimes a matter of being comfortable in being uncomfortable. There’s a stronger person within yourself, and you can find that person with a better mindset that puts priorities over pleasure.”