Today, the 27-year-old former inmate turned honor student has been selected as a 2012 Truman Scholar, a national award given to the country’s top students pursuing careers in government or public service.
The award recognizes Fortson for his exceptional leadership potential and commitment to public service and provides him with a financial scholarship to pursue his studies in exercise physiology. His goal is to research and understand nutrition and obesity in the prison population, the risk factors involved and steps needed to adapting healthier lifestyles behind bars
“When I found out that I had been selected at first I didn’t know what to think,” said Fortson. “It took a few hours to let it sink in and then there were outbursts of joy. I have been totally elated and feel so fortunate.”
Fortson is the eighth Truman Scholar from Rutgers and the first since 2001. He joins a prestigious group of 54 scholars from around the country selected among 595 candidates nominated by 292 colleges and universities. Recipients of the award, named after President Harry S. Truman, receive a $30,000 scholarship that provides $3,000 toward senior-year expenses and $27,000 for two or three years of graduate study.
The Philadelphia native is not sure where he will go for graduate studies when he leaves Rutgers. Fortson is certain, however, that his life will focus on the same prison system that left him feeling “trapped and endangered” – where he vowed never to return.
“The experience in prison was so disturbing and frightening. I couldn’t believe that I was there,” said Fortson. “What I did know is that I never wanted to come back.”Despite having earned 41 credits from Temple University before his arrest, Fortson wasn’t sure he had much of a future. That is, until he met Donald Roden, a veteran Rutgers history professor who worked with corrections officials at Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility in Hunterdon County, where Fortson was serving his sentence. Roden, who has been involved in prison outreach for the last decade, provided him with the encouragement he needed to believe that there would be life after prison.
“One of the things I remember most about the day I was arrested,” he says, “was having a gun pointed at my head, being handcuffed and having the police officer tell me, ‘You know that your life is over.’ I remember that I believed him.”
Prior to his arrest, Fortson says he was a strong student with a can-do attitude, which, he now believes, may have gotten him into trouble. “I may have been arrogant, believing that I could do whatever I wanted,” he said.
Roden, who started the Mountainview Project in 2002 to build a bridge from the prison to Rutgers, convinced Fortson that Rutgers could be his ticket to a better life.
Fortson enrolled at Rutgers in the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) in 2009, where he became an honor student and the recipient of the SAS Academic Excellence Award.
What he wants to do now is let others who are locked up behind bars know that there are educational opportunities available to them. He helped create and is the president of the Mountainview Student Organization, a collaborative effort between Rutgers and Princeton University that began sending students this semester into the facility each week to speak with inmates.
Fortson also is involved in Project Pride (Promoting Responsibility in Drug Education) and is one of a group of former inmates who speak at schools, churches and rehabilitation centers sharing stories about how all it takes is one bad choice to end up behind bars.
“We are out there trying to dispel the myth that you have to be bad to end up in prison,” said Fortson who before being locked up for selling drugs was an honor student at Temple, sold sneakers on the internet, worked for an elevator company and never thought he would end up behind bars because he was too smart. “All it takes is one bad move, that’s it.”
Even with all the accolades, however, Fortson must still deal with the fact that he is a felon – a question asked on every application he fills out. This is one of the major reasons he does all he can to do his best.
Arthur Casciato, director of the Office of Distinguished Fellowships at Rutgers, said that being selected as a Truman Scholar not only honors Fortson but is a great tribute to Rutgers.
“It confirms that Walter has come all the way back from the disastrous mistake of his youth and launches him into a career that promises to make a crucial difference in the lives of ex-offenders like him,” Casciato said. “Few candidates have had to come as far as Walter to get here.”