As I walked across the stage, I couldn’t believe I was finally graduating. I’d spent the past three years at St. Francis College in Brooklyn finishing my bachelor’s degree in Sociology. My family was in the crowd, screaming loudly. My mom and my grandmother were crying. I kept thinking just don’t trip as all the years leading to that moment flashed through my mind.
I was born in the Bronx to a single mom. My grandmother realized her daughter needed support, so she returned from Haiti to help raise me. At first we lived in a one-bedroom apartment, and even though we were poor, my mom never made it seem that way. I always went to good schools, and every Saturday my mom and I would have brunch at IHOP before going shopping. Sometimes we’d see a Broadway play. I’ve seen Les Misérables about 18 times.
When I was 15, we moved to Westchester County outside New York City. It was a tough transition: The schools weren’t as diverse, and I felt like no one wanted to be my friend. Still, I did well in class, graduated, and got accepted to St. John’s University in Queens.
I did terribly the first semester, but started to perform much better during the second. It was around that time—in February—that I got a phone call from an acquaintance who said, “I just saw your mom on News 12 in Westchester.”
“That’s not possible,” I said. “I spoke with her yesterday.”
But she insisted, saying my mother had been arrested.
“You are a liar,” I screamed! “Don’t call me again. Don’t you ever say that to me again.”
After I hung up, I googled it, and there she was in a news clip—she had been charged with grand larceny and identity theft. My mom had been stealing credit cards and using them to buy prepaid Visa cards. I couldn’t believe it. I started to cry. I knew she was going through something: She had lost her job, she had to take care of me, and help get me through college. There was so much pressure.
Even though I was close to my mom growing up, she was very secretive. There were lots of things about her past that I didn’t know. I found out much later that, in 1991, she was locked up for nearly eight months. And a few years later, when I was in the fourth grade, I didn’t realize my mom went to prison for a year. My grandmother told me she was away for work.
After my mom was arrested this time, I went home to see my grandmother. The house was a mess because the police had searched through everything. I had never seen anything like it: clothes, jewelry, papers—all our stuff, strewn across the apartment. They had just left it like that.
Without my mom, we couldn’t afford to live there anymore. Soon after, we moved to Yonkers, and I went back to St. John’s. I struggled through my second semester before returning home that summer for good.
I kept the fact that my mom was in prison a secret. Some of my friends knew, but they wouldn’t say anything. When I went home to Yonkers, I felt like no one really understood me.
Then I met a guy who changed my life.
One evening, I was walking to a party in my neighborhood and a voice called out, “Hello, how are you?” Instead of going to the party, I hung out with him. The next day he asked me to be his girlfriend. I soon moved out of my house and into his mother’s home, where he lived.
About two weeks after we met, he told me he had just come home from doing 3.5 years in prison. “I don’t care,” I said. “I respect you, regardless.” At that point, I was in love.
When he lost his construction job, he began selling drugs and stealing. Eventually, he taught me how to rob, too. The first time I helped him rob someone, we had gotten kicked out of his mother’s house. We didn’t have anything to eat, so he called one of his friends, who picked us up and took us to a bar. The friend’s girlfriend and I talked to guys, and danced with them. Then we said, “Let’s go outside and have a cigarette.” Once we got them alone, our boyfriends came out and took care of the rest.
I got caught up in his lifestyle, and soon we were pulling off “honey traps” whenever we needed cash.
When my boyfriend got arrested, I started scamming on my own. I would post on websites as an escort but then take the money and run. That’s how I got arrested the first time: I got charged with petty larceny while working a guy in Hartsdale. My family bailed me out.
A few months later, while out on bail, I decided to join my boyfriend on a scheme in Virginia Beach. A friend of his had been talking to a guy down there. My boyfriend's friend said the guy wanted to spend the evening with three women, and they would each get $10,000 just to “hang out.” So my boyfriend and I asked a friend of our own if she wanted to make some easy money, and we drove down to the beach.
But the guys didn’t know they were talking to federal officers. And I didn’t know the women were supposed to be sold into sex slavery. I knew it was a scheme, but I didn’t know all the elements.
As soon as we started walking on the boardwalk to make the exchange, about 50 cops and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents surrounded us with their guns drawn. It was a set up. We threw our hands in the air.
I told them I didn’t know what was going on, and they said, “You may have not jumped in the water, but you dipped your toes.”
I was arrested and booked into a jail in Virginia. I didn’t call my mom for a week. She had gotten out of prison a few years earlier, and now I’d have to tell her I was following in her footsteps.
What the hell did I get myself into? I wondered. Ultimately, I was charged with conspiracy to transport persons for prostitution.
I went to court, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to a year in prison. I had already spent eight months behind bars because they denied me bail, and by the time I was transferred to Hazelton prison in West Virginia, I had already served nine months of my sentence.
When I got home, my mother was getting her master’s degree in teaching with the help of Hudson Link, a reentry program that helps formerly incarcerated people get into school and rebuild their lives. My mom told me about St. Francis and their tuition-free college program for former prisoners. But we still lived in Yonkers, and St. Francis is all the way in Brooklyn.
“How am I supposed to get there without a car?” I asked.
“Find a way,” she told me.
That was three years ago. At first I wasn’t excited to be returning to school because I didn't know what I wanted to do. I just wanted to work. But when I got there, everyone was so supportive.
I thought to myself: If I mess this up, I am messing it up not just for myself, but for other people trying to turn their lives around. Getting my life back was tough. I was young, one of the youngest in the program. I violated my probation twice. But school kept me pushing.
By the time graduation day came around, everything was going well. Now I’m working and looking for ways to help kids from disenfranchised neighborhoods find their strength. Meanwhile, my mom is working on a dissertation about intergenerational incarceration.
What I went through won’t ever disappear, but at least I have something to say about it: This is the path my life had to take so I could be strong.
Arielle Pierre, 27, graduated from St. Francis College in Brooklyn. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.