Vanessa Estimé ’14 is excited to be serving as assistant director for the Yale Prison Education Initiative (YPEI) at Dwight Hall at Yale. Through the support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the University of New Haven is collaborating with YPEI to create a degree-granting program for incarcerated students in Connecticut, and Estimé is looking forward to helping to lead this important work.
October 6, 2021
When Vanessa Estimé ’14 was an undergraduate student at the University of New Haven, she was committed to supporting her classmates and to helping them succeed. She credits her time as a Charger with helping her cultivate her passion for public service.
As a legal studies major, Estimé served the University community in myriad roles, including as an academic peer mentor and as a student member of the University’s Center for Student Success. A member of the President’s Public Service Fellowship program, she spent a summer volunteering with Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS), a nonprofit in New Haven.
Estimé has now begun a new role as assistant director for the Yale Prison Education Initiative (YPEI) at Dwight Hall at Yale, which enables her to continue to support students and make an impact on the community. The University of New Haven received a three-year $1.5 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support the development of a degree-granting collaboration with YPEI for incarcerated students in Connecticut.
“It is a bit surreal being able to work with the University of New Haven in this capacity,” said Estimé, who is also a licensed social worker, certified childbirth educator, and birth doula. “All roads led to this experience, and I am honored to serve in this role. It is a dream realized.”
‘I felt strengthened, equipped, challenged, and hopeful’
YPEI and the University of New Haven established a flagship collaboration earlier this year that creates pathways for students who have been released from prison to continue their educational pursuits. The affiliation is fostering an expansion of a program for incarcerated students in Connecticut, creating a pathway for these students to earn associate and bachelor's degrees, and establishing an innovative Fellowship program for alumni of higher education in prison programs.
A signature program of Dwight Hall at Yale, the university’s Center for Public Service and Social Justice, YPEI was founded in 2016 and is part of the Bard Prison Initiative's Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison.
“My goal is to help bolster this already strong and impactful program,” said Estimé. “With the newly established affiliation with the University of New Haven and the addition of associate and, in the near future, bachelor’s degrees being offered to our students, I know it can only go up from here.”
As assistant director, Estimé ensures that program development and operations go smoothly. She makes sure faculty members and students have what they need to succeed, liaises with the Connecticut Department of Corrections, and assists with reentry needs when incarcerated students return home.
Estimé’s first day as assistant director was also her first day of the Bard Prison Initiative Summer Residency, an intensive orientation at which she learned about methodologies and best practices. For three weeks, she and her fellow higher education practitioners built their skills, developed a rapport, and discussed the importance and purpose of their work.
“I could not have conceived of a better way to start my new position,” she explains. “Throughout the residency, I felt strengthened, equipped, challenged, and hopeful because of what was shared and the community that was fostered among us.”
‘Investing in lives is my purpose and life’s work’
Estimé comes to YPEI from Housatonic Community College, where, for more than four years, she supported students as an achievement coach for the Family Economic Security Program by providing academic, financial, career, and life coaching. She also served as the grant coordinator for the Promoting Academically Successful Students (PASS) program, provided academic advisement, and supervised the school’s AmeriCorps VISTA members.
In her new role, Estimé is especially looking forward to witnessing and fostering her students’ growth and success. She is passionate about education and believes it should be offered to everyone. She also believes in her students and in the importance of her work.
“YPEI’s work speaks to and meets the great need of providing college access to incarcerated individuals in Connecticut and throughout the world,” she said. “Education has changed lives, families, and communities for the better. Why not extend it to individuals who, historically and still today, have been excluded from such opportunities and provide them with a chance to change the trajectory of their lives?
“My students are linguists, artists, and researchers,” she continues. “They are fantastic writers and orators. They think critically, wrestle with texts and concepts, and engage in valuable discourse with one another. I bear witness to and am in awe of their collective potential and know that this program can be just the beginning. Investing in lives is my purpose and life’s work, and I am grateful to be working in this dynamic and radical space of higher education in prison.”