Stint in federal prison leads student to divinity school

Ramon Durham recently finished his first semester at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

Stint in federal prison leads student to divinity school
June 30
10:35 2022

The end of the semester is always an exciting time for college students. Stress from final exams have passed, and you get a few weeks to bask in the glory, or lowness, of the past semester’s work. For Ramon Durham, who recently finished his first semester at Wake Forest University School of Divinity where he’s working toward his master’s, the end of the grading period was a success. He finished with three As and two Bs which was good enough for a 3.82 GPA. 

The end of the semester also marked  another significant point in Durham’s life: five years since he walked away from a federal prison. 

Durham, who is a native of Homestead, Pennsylvania, said he grew up going to church, but when he got to high school he started to follow the wrong crowd. 

“I grew up in the church and I’ll say around 15 I started feeling like my life was boring,” said Durham while reflecting on his childhood. “At that time I was just trying to figure out and understand what it meant to be a man and I was getting my information on what it meant to be a man by looking toward the streets.”

While still trying to figure that out, Durham said, he turned to drinking and smoking. He said being intoxicated gave him a false sense of freedom. 

“In the process of trying to figure out who I was I decided to drink and smoke marijuana … and it captured me because I felt free. Although it was false, it was a freedom that I never experienced before,” Durham said. “It also caused me to not care. All the things that I cared about previously, the weights that were on my shoulders as a young 15-year-old trying to find his way, all that went out the window. I thought I had found the solution to all my problems.”

Although he was experimenting with weed and alcohol, Durham did graduate from high school and go on to attend Howard University. Attending the prestigious HBCU was something Durham dreamed of doing since he was in the 6th grade. And a trip his sophomore year of high school solidified his decision. He also credits Spike Lee’s School Daze, the Bayou Classic, and the hit TV-show “A Different World” for sparking his interest in HBCUs.

“I wanted to attend Howard since middle school and in the 10th grade I was in a college prep program called Upward Bound and we went to D.C. that summer and we visited Howard and Georgetown,” Durham said. “It was just something about Howard that I was just drawn to. Then it was the people who went there like the Phylicia Rashads, P. Diddy went there, Taraji P. Henson went there, Debbie Allen … just all the names that came out of Howard, I wanted to be one of those names.”

Like many college students, Durham’s first semester was filled with a lot of partying. While sitting in a bar on his 18th birthday, Durham said he had an awakening, an epiphany that told him to get closer to God. 

“I had accepted Christ as my savior and got baptized because I grew up in church, but I will say at that time I committed my life to God. There’s a difference between accepting and making a commitment to live my life for God,” Durham said. 

Durham said he let go of the negative influences and changed his way of life for about two years before a bad experience pushed him away and back to his old way of life. “I had a bad experience and I walked away from church,” he said. 

“That’s why I said I had two different experiences at Howard. I had two sets of friends. I had all Christian friends at one point who weren’t into all that and I had another set of friends who I partied with … that’s a big reason why I ended up having to stay in school four more years, because I started partying.”  

Even with the ups and downs of his college experience at Howard, Durham did graduate in 2003 After enjoying the D.C. lifestyle for about a year, Durham returned to Homestead in January 2004. He said his initial plan was to stay there for a year, then move back to D.C. 

“After I went home I felt sucked into that lifestyle of late night and early mornings,” he said. Unable to find a job, Durham started selling drugs to support himself. 

That same year Durham caught his first drug charge. He said he was leaving a club one night with a friend when he was pulled over by the police, and that year he planned to stay in Homestead quickly turned into 15. 

“After that, it was just like case after case, after case after case,” he said. 

Durham said he was charged with at least one crime every year he was in Homestead until he was sentenced to two years in federal prison in 2015. He said although he was 23 years old at that time, he was still trying to figure out what it meant to be a man. 

“Now that I know myself, I see that I was making decisions that were antithetical to who I am. I’m not a drug dealer, I’m not a street person at all, but I started to pick up characteristics and traits of the people and the environment that I was in,” Durham said. 

When discussing his time in prison, Durham said it was a time of reflection. He related his own journey to the parable of the Prodigal Son, who squandered away all his gifts and shamed his family but was welcomed back with open arms. 

“I always say that jail was the time for me that I came to myself. While I was in there I really had the time to sit and reflect on my life,” he continued. “I began to trace my steps from elementary school to middle school, to high school to when I took that first drink to my freshman year at Howard and to what made me walk away from God and why I stayed away so long.”

While praying and asking God questions, Durham said he also started to write out a vision for his life, which included earning his master’s and Ph.D. in divinity and becoming a professor at a big name college or university. Shortly after he was released from prison in 2017, Durham enrolled in an online program to earn his master;s but he didn’t think the program would prepare him for the Ph.D. he desired. 

Looking to find an on-campus program that would meet his needs, Durham reached out to the only person he knew in the field, a family friend, Dr. Melva Sampson, who is a professor at Wake Forest School of Divinity. 

“She was the only person I knew who was doing what I wanted to do and we’re from the same neighborhood. So she became my vocational mentor for the online courses I was taking and then she started talking to me about Wake Forest and as she was doing that, she was helping me find my own voice and confidence in myself again,” Durham said. 

With the help from Dr. Sampson, Durham started applying to schools to continue his studies. In addition to Wake, he also applied to Princeton Theological Seminary and one other big name school. But in the end he chose Wake, who also offered him a full scholarship. 

“I submitted my application in January 2021, within a week of receiving my application I was accepted and I ended up getting a full scholarship,” Durham said. “When I got the letter I started to cry because I knew I always wanted to go back to a college campus, but I didn’t know how that would come to be because I didn’t have the money to do that, so it was just amazing to me and it showed me that God wasn’t moved by where I had been or none of my mistakes. God wasn’t moved by finances, none of that. 

“He literally moved everything to align me to be here and then provided the resources for me to be here.”

Since enrolling at Wake Forest School of Divinity, Durham has started a blog called “Road to Demaskus,” where he talks about his journey to Wake and the progress he’s making toward his master’s. “With Road to Demaskus, my goal ultimately was to provide a space where I would be able to share my insecurities, to share my fears and become vulnerable because that’s part of being a man, and then through that allow other people to do the same.”

In addition to earning his master’s and Ph.D., Durham also wants to create a nonprofit that helps individuals adapt after returning home from prison. He said he wants to be a voice for the voiceless.

“As a professor I want to be in a position to provide a seat at the table for someone who has been in a similar situation as me,” Durham said. “I want to be able to open up the door for someone getting out of prison that wants to go back to school. The sad part is the only thing offered to prisoners as far as employment usually is labor work … I want to be able to create a pathway to education or going to school where getting a Ph.D. or a master’s is an option.” 

To follow Durham’s journey, follow his personal blog “Road to Demaskus” on Facebook. 


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Tevin Stinson

Tevin Stinson

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