That was six years ago. Last month, Diamond and Rodriguez, part of the Rutgers Mountainview program for formerly incarcerated students, graduated with a long list of honors and awards. The couple, who are partners, are engaged to be married next year.
“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs, but we’ve always supported each other and encouraged each other, especially when it comes to school work,’’ says Diamond, 35, who earned her degree from the Rutgers’ School of Social Work, and will be attending Fordham University for her master's degree.
During the arduous transition from the correctional system to academic life -- from Rodriguez’s efforts to resist the pull of a street life that landed her in prison, and Diamond’s mother’s heart surgery -- they have spurred each other to follow their dreams.
“Regina always believed in me, many times more than I believed in myself,’’ says Rodriguez, a women’s and gender studies major. “She assured me that one day I would celebrate accomplishments that, at the time, I thought were impossible. And I have. More than I could ever have fathomed.”
Diamond also depended on Rodriguez. “I have never wanted to give up, but Amy has definitely motivated me to continue working hard,’’ she says.
In 2006, Rodriguez, 34, who grew up in Camden, was arrested for drug dealing and sentenced to two-and-a-half years and a half years in the Edna Mahon Correctional Facility for Women.
Although since her teens, she knew she was a lesbian, it was something she never felt the need to discuss with her family. “That’s just a conversation that we never had but it’s something that’s known. My mom’s main concern for me is that I’m doing well in life.’’
Rodriguez’s parents, Puerto Rican immigrants, never graduated from high school, although her mother obtained a GED. For them, the college system seemed difficult to navigate and inaccessible for their children.
During her first few months in prison -- which she calls “the most horrible place I’ve ever been in my life” – Rodriguez had no intention of turning her life around. “I went in there with the mentality just to do time and that’s it. I wasn’t worried about anything but coming home.”
That changed when she was sent to a behavior modification program and decided she wanted to go to school. “I started thinking differently about what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to go back to what I was doing anymore.’’
Diamond, who grew up in the Monmouth County towns of Keyport and Hazlet, was sentenced to Edna Mahon for robbery and drug possession, a time in her life she doesn’t like to talk about.
Her parents were accepting when she came out as bisexual in her late teens and later told them she was a lesbian.
When Diamond and Rodriguez met, neither of them knew what careers they wanted to pursue. But they took each other seriously. “I felt like everything she was telling me, she was going to achieve,” Rodriguez says. Diamond was equally impressed. “Amy was a really positive person, and in prison, it’s not easy to find positive people. When you do, they stand out.’’
During her time at the halfway house, Rodriguez began attending Essex County College in 2009, and after she was accepted into the Mountainview program, transferred to Rugers.
Diamond, who also joined the Mountainview program, was released two months after Rodriguez. After taking classes at Brookdale Community College, she also transferred to Rutgers.
Rebuilding their lives wasn’t easy. Despite a four-hour round trip train ride, they visited each other nearly every day. Diamond lived in Bergen County while Rodriguez returned to Camden, where she couldn’t find work and tried to readjust.
“I had changed my way of thinking, but my environment was the same,’’ said Rodriguez. "Regina helped keep me focused.’’ The couple now lives in Highland Park.
At Rutgers, they have found a place for themselves intellectually as well as socially. “I really appreciate the diversity and love that there’s so much support for so many different communities,’’ says Diamond.
Both she and Rodriguez have become mentors to other students in the Mountainview program and active in Rutgers LGBTQ community, where they have worked to educate others about LGBTQ people in prison.
“Amy and Regina have contributed enormously as student leaders,’‘ says Don Roden, faculty advisor to the Mountainview program.
Diamond has worked in the Rutgers Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities, mentoring others and helping with outreach efforts to LGBTQ students. Rodriguez mentored women at Edna Mahon. Both say the center has been key in helping Mountainview students, both straight and LGBTQ, adjust to student life.
“Amy and Regina are both really interested in giving back to the community,’’ says Jenny Kurtz, director of the center.
Although the Mountainview program has grown since it was founded in 2005, its 45 or so students rely heavily on each other to navigate college life since their pre-Rutgers experience can leave them feeling unprepared and isolated. Both Diamond and Rodriguez say that coming out about their prison record has been much more difficult than coming out as lesbians.
“People know that I’m a lesbian when they see me,’’ says Rodriguez. “I’m gender nonconforming and dress in male clothes. But with formerly incarcerated people, there’s such a stigma and so many misperceptions. I was worried that people would be scared. I wanted to let people get to know me first. It’s really important to establish yourself as a scholar and serious student and not have your prison record be used as an excuse.’’
Once she and Diamond proved themselves academically, joining the ranks of other successful Mountainview students, including two who won prestigious Truman Scholarships, Rodriguez and Diamond found it easier to tell others they had once been incarcerated.
Now, they are ready to pursue the careers that once seemed so far out of reach. Rodriguez is thinking of becoming an anthropology professor, studying marginalized communities. This year, she completed a project for the Women’s and Gender Studies Honors Thesis program, titled "Migration and its Effect on Gender Identity Perception: Lesbianism from Puerto Rico to the United States.’’ She also won the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies' 2013 Dee Garrison Award for Peace and Justice .
Diamond, who graduated with a 3.9 GPA and won a School of Arts and Sciences Excellence Award scholarship last year, wants to use her training as a social worker to help the mentally ill, the LGBTQ community and the formerly incarcerated.
They haven’t planned the details for their wedding yet, but they envision a long and happy future together.
While Diamond is a “people person” and Rodriguez is more guarded, their differences have helped them endure.
“We balance and complement each other,’’ says Rodriguez. “That’s why it works.”