Nate Bethancourt has found his calling in entrepreneurship. It’s something he’s studied in class with John Dobson, a professor in the School of Management. He’s gained confidence pitching his ideas and frequently sells homemade juice at Clark Collective Pop-Up events. Bethancourt is just like any other student on campus, but his path to Clark may be the least traditional.
Bethancourt is one of nine students in a new educational program for formerly incarcerated individuals. Liberal Arts for Returning Citizens (LARC) launched this fall, with course offerings taught by Dobson, Associate Dean of Academic Services Jennifer Plante, M.A. ’00, and sociology Professor Shelly Tenenbaum. The program is cost-free for LARC students, who have access to the resources used by typical undergraduates.
Dobson has been teaching courses in the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction for several years. Tenenbaum has taught college courses at various state prisons through the Emerson Prison Initiative. Their shared experience encouraged them to design a program for Clark.
“The cooperation and work ethic within this group of students is the best I’ve seen anywhere,” Dobson says of the current LARC students. “They have the drive to better their lives and don’t mind holding each other accountable.”
Bethancourt heard about LARC through mentors at Legendary Legacies, a Worcester organization that connects formerly incarcerated people with community resources. He’s lived in Main South for years and was familiar with campus but couldn’t recall ever seeing someone with life experiences similar to his own at Clark.
“Seeing people from a different background in the same space on campus shows the public that we’re not that much different,” Bethancourt says. “We can be just as productive, just as educated as someone else from a different walk of life.” LARC started in the fall with course offerings in entrepreneurship, sociology, and communications.
“We’re focused on communication, collaboration, teamwork, and empathy. You can only be successful in business if you have empathy for your customer,” Dobson says. “The entrepreneurship class is designed to develop these soft skills.”
During the communications course, Bethancourt worked on writing a memoir. The entrepreneurship class has helped him start growing his small business, Health Ya’Self. Bethancourt makes juices with ingredients like beets, ginger, pineapple, dragon fruit, and more, promoting the product primarily on Instagram. Bethancourt hopes to win Clark Tank, the University’s venture development competition, and invest in a larger juicer.
“I come from a family with a medical history that includes diabetes and high blood pressure. And in the age of COVID, people are getting sick often,” he says. “I started the business to spread knowledge on the benefits of eating better and having a healthier diet.”
Bethancourt didn’t take courses while incarcerated. In hindsight, he wishes he could have learned financial literacy. That feedback is helping Dobson expand LARC programming, with plans to add courses in financial intelligence, literature, and psychology.
Students in the LARC program have started to mingle with the campus community. They were initially worried about fitting in on campus and wondered whether traditional students would accept them. With time, those fears have dissipated, and they’ve built connections.
“Our traditional undergrads know about the program and have been excited to meet the LARC students,” Dobson says. “There’s been some effort to collaborate on projects.”
Bethancourt says entrepreneurship gives formerly incarcerated people a path to move forward, particularly because it’s challenging to find employment with a felony record. Dobson believes entrepreneurship can break the cycle of recidivism.
“Entrepreneurship can transform lives, get people out of poverty, and create productive members of society,” Dobson says. “It’s powerful.” Bethancourt hopes to matriculate at Clark and continue growing his business. His past fuels his ambition.
“I’m trying to graduate and go to the next level,” he says. “I’m driven to inspire others. The best way to do that is to show them what you’ve accomplished.”