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“I’ve never been in an institution where you can get help in anything you need – A to Z. There’s never been a time when I needed to see a professor and couldn’t find them. If you’re failing at MassBay, it’s your own fault.”
Hometown: Boston, MA
Major: Human Services
Aspirations: Becoming a counselor to at-risk youth.
Ten years ago Rahshjeem Benson couldn’t have possibly imagined spending a full 10 minutes speaking to the Governor of Massachusetts about a public policy recommendation (“Wasn’t a thought in my mind,” he says. “I didn’t even know who the Governor was.”), but that is precisely what happened when Governor Deval Patrick visited the MassBay campus on January 26th.
Rahshjeem notes that it wasn’t the first time he had the opportunity to meet Governor Patrick. The scenario, however, was much different.
“I met the Governor in 2008,” explains Rahshjeem, when Governor Patrick visited MCI Concord and Rahshjeem was an inmate serving a three year, nine month sentence for possession of a Class B substance (crack cocaine). “I told him the next time you see me I’ll be in a much better position.”
Today Rahshjeem is a Human Services major at MassBay with aspirations of becoming a counselor to at-risk youth in his native city of Boston. “I want my city to be safer for my children than it was for me when I was coming up in the early ‘90’s,” he says. “I want to be known as someone who made bad decisions, paid his debt to society, and even though I was once a part of the problem, now I’m part of the solution.”
Growing up in Mattapan, Rahshjeem, 29, the oldest of five siblings, lived with a single mother who struggled to make ends meet. He met his father for the first time just last year. “My mother did her best, raising three boys and two girls on her own, but it wasn’t enough for me,” he says. There were no uncles, cousins or any other father figures in his life. “The streets of Mattapan were my father,” he says. Rahshjeem bounced from high school to high school, moving from Hyde Park High to McKinley Vocational, before transferring to Charlestown High. While at Charlestown he was dealing drugs and wound up getting arrested, serving eight months in a DYS detention center for possession. He says it was one of several times he was arrested since he turned 15.
Standing 6’8”, Rahshjeem had an outlet in basketball. He had an opportunity to move to Big Spring, Texas to play for the Howard Junior College basketball team after being released, but “I flunked off the team. I got away for awhile,” he says, “But it was tough for me academically. I really just wanted to play basketball.”
Returning home to Boston, he went back to dealing drugs. And while Rahshjeem attributes his waywardness to a lack of stability at home, he also says he got a rush from the drug dealer lifestyle. “I could go anywhere, spend money as I wanted. I can’t remember a time where I went out without at least $1,000 in my pocket and another $10,000 in my room at home,” he says. “When you have money like that, you spend it frivolously – like you picked it off a tree.”
But, “It’s a temporary lifestyle,” he says, “because there are people who will cooperate with the police. You know you’re going to get caught, it’s a matter of how long you can go without getting caught.”
Rahshjeem got caught and was sent to prison on May 22, 2007. “When I first got arrested I figured I’d do my time, and I still knew people, so I could just get back in it when I got out. I’m going to do this three years, nine months, and then I’m gonna do it my way again.” But while he was incarcerated he met a man by the name of Arnie King. A man who changed his life for good.
In 1971, Arnie King had just gotten out of jail in Baltimore. He came to Boston with some friends, and took part in an attempted robbery while he was high on drugs and alcohol. He wound up shooting and killing a man, John Labanara, 26 – a man he’d never met. Arnie King was sentenced to life in prison. He was 18 years old.
“Arnie talked to me about the consequences of a split second decision,” says Rahshjeem. “He told me that just because I’m a convict it doesn’t mean the end of the world. I knew I was smarter than I was presenting myself, so I took the time I had to self-evaluate.” He began taking educational programs and earned his GED while he was incarcerated.
Today Arnie King is 59 years old and still imprisoned, and he is the inspiration Rahshjeem uses each and every day. “(Arnie) helps me get through the things in life that are tough for me. Things like studying. Dealing with my kids – all the distractions and temptations. Anything that is tough for me. Knowing I’m out here in the free world – it drives me to want to help others. His story resonates through me, and I want my story to resonate through those who are younger than me.”
Since he’s been at MassBay, Rahshjeem has thrived. “I’ve never been in an institution where you can get help in anything you need – A to Z. There’s never been a time when I needed to see a professor and couldn’t find them. If you’re failing at MassBay, it’s your own fault.”
A starter on the men’s basketball team, he’s getting looks from scouts at four-year colleges and universities. And while a bachelor’s degree may be on the horizon for him, he’s not wavering from his vision of the future of being a counselor to Boston’s at-risk youth.
“I want the bad kids,” he says. “I want the ones who are getting in trouble, being disruptive, talking back to their parents. I know what it’s like. It’s one thing to talk about it, but it’s another thing if you’ve lived it. These kids are smart,” he continued. “They know if you’re coming with b.s. or if you’re in it for a paycheck, or if it’s coming from your heart. I’ve been able to find better ways to deal with my emotions, and use verbal communication to output my negative energy, and so can they.”
When discussing his life experience so far, Rahshjeem says, “I am grateful for it. I thought I knew everything, and nobody could get through to me. But I realized you have to learn to listen and listen to learn. I read a lot when I was inside. It opened my mind. My experiences developed me into the man I am today. It feels good.”
Rahshjeem Benson is a human services major and is planning to transfer to a four year college or institution.