Jose Whitten

Jose Whitten had much in his life to overcome. His mother’s boyfriend abused him and his siblings. His beloved adoptive mother died when he was 15. He fell into the criminal justice system and was imprisoned for 14 years. But he never lost his motivation to help people improve their lives.

Jose needs only nine credits to achieve an associate degree in science, and he has earned mostly A’s and B’s in his classes. He plans to transfer to the University of North Texas for the Fall 2013 semester. Jose waved his hands to accentuate his statement: “If I can do it, anybody can do it!”

Jose’s mother was a child herself when she gave birth to Jose and his two younger siblings. His mother’s boyfriend repeatedly burned the children. That led to Jose and his siblings being placed in the foster care system. Jose cannot remember how many houses he slept in. He did remember that in one home, he and his siblings slept in pillowcases instead of a bed. He refused to establish relationships with anyone, because no one lasted in his life.

After four years in the system, Jose, his younger brother and his sister were adopted together.

“I owed everything to my adopted mother,” Jose says. As if she had a magnetic field of love, close to her, every child was well-loved. However, she passed away of breast cancer when he was 15. That was around the time he started acting out, eventually getting himself into another system: the criminal justice system.

Jose was imprisoned for 14 years and was in solitary confinement for the last seven. A professor, Jack, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, started to write to him. For four years, in a room equipped with an uncovered toilet and a monitor camera, Jose absorbed books sent by Jack. The books were about anatomy, history, nutrition, grammar and more. Jose memorized the multiplication tables, and he enjoyed reading Nietzsche. Jack, who Jose said had absolute faith in him, passed away not long before Jose was released.

“I want to help people, but I need the credibility,” Jose said of the motive that drove him to enroll in college and do well there. “I’m dealing with my past every day.” He said with determination, “I’ll never go back [to jail]!”

He got out of prison in June 2010 and enrolled in North Lake College three months later. Yet two weeks into the semester, Jose thought of quitting. He had studied hard for a math test but had failed. He talked with Counseling Services on campus. His counselor referred him to the TRiO program. For half a year, TRiO staff members called him once or twice a week to talk about his classes and schoolwork; somebody cared!

Jose worked hard with everyone in the math lab at North Lake College and with his professors, and he passed algebra in spring 2013. He has established strong bonds with the college student services support staff and caring faculty members.

“I’m not a quitter; I’m not a loser; I have to make some kind of impact,” Jose says. He plans to major in biology at UNT; he wants to be a physician or a psychiatrist and help people, especially those who come from the foster care or criminal justice systems. He can share his experiences, and he knows they can relate. There is no doubt: “If I can do it, anybody can do it!”