Opportunity Scholars


Opportunity Scholars is an initiative that supports people with lived experience in the carceral system to grow personally, professionally, and academically through access to higher education and fulfilling careers. Opportunity Scholars is funded by the Mellon Foundation.

Our Approach

Since 2020, scholars with lived experience in the carceral system have been building a community of peer support, creating a digital student network, and bringing together a statewide coalition of faculty, learners, and community leaders committed to expanding emancipatory education across Maine. Opportunity Scholars (formerly housed at the University of Southern Maine) will continue to mobilize personal and community transformation, career development, and social change goals by establishing a cohort of Opportunity Scholars to serve as peer mentors and to lead projects that center critical community justice, gender equity, and youth justice work nationwide.

We welcome our first cohort of Opportunity Scholars:

  • Abdi “Lalee” Awad: Awad, a Senior Justice Scholar, graduated with his master’s in adult and higher education in May 2023. He is applying for PhD programs in justice studies. Mr. Awad believes that education is society’s greatest equalizer.
  • Andre Hicks: Hicks is the Director of Rhyme & Reason and develops pathways to liberation for emerging adults. Mr. Hicks is dedicated to working with youth in the juvenile justice system to create alternative routes to success through music and creativity.
  • Brandon Brown: Brown is a Ph.D. student at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution. He was the first in Maine to earn a graduate degree while in custody. While incarcerated, he found positive ways to contribute to his community and remains dedicated to continuing this work.
  • Darlene George: Ms. George is a skillful, innovative, dedicated scholar and thought partner from Brooklyn, NY. She resides in Maine, where she has been incarcerated and serving as a state-certified recovery coach for over a decade. Ms. George facilitates humanities courses with other incarcerated women and the public, titled Finding and Connecting Your Roots and Floetry.
  • Kerry Simes: Simes is working on her BA in criminal justice with a paralegal certificate from the University of Maine Augusta. Outspoken and passionate about justice, Ms. Simes is a member of the Right/Write to Heal creative writing group and plans to expand Opportunity Scholars across state lines to share the message of education as a pathway to success.
  • Leo Hylton: Mr. Hylton is a Ph.D. student in peace and conflict resolution. His education and work are based in trauma-informed, healing-centered restorative justice practices and are focused on social justice advocacy and activism. He has worked as a visiting instructor at Colby College, was a lead facilitator of Maine State Prison’s Restorative Practices Steering Committee, served on Colby College’s Restorative Practices Team, and provides consultation to restorative justice practitioners in the U.S. and abroad.
  • Linda Small: Small, a Senior Justice Scholar, is the founder and Executive Director of Reentry Sisters, an organization specializing in a gender-responsive and trauma-informed approach to reentry for women in Maine and beyond. She is completing her MS in adult and higher education and is a Columbia Women’s Leadership Fellow.
  • Nicole Lemay: Lemay completed her associate’s degree in human services from Washington County Community College with a substance use and recovery certificate. She is now the Operations Lead and Development Co-lead at Youth Led Justice. Outgoing and resourceful, Ms. Lemay is the house manager at a transitional home for women and mentors women in re-entry and recovery.
  • Se Mi Anderson: Anderson is originally from Queens, NY, and Misawa, Japan. She graduated with an AS concentration in health science from Southern Maine Community College and is currently pursuing a nursing degree. Her focus is on veterans’ rights and recovery advocacy. As a United States Marine Corps veteran, she is working to show that second chances are possible to remove barriers and become structural columns in the community through knowledge and humility.
  • Shaun Libby: Libby is working on his MA in youth development through Michigan State University and works full-time at Jobs for the Future. As someone incarcerated as a teenager, he plans to mentor and advocate for youth to divert involvement with the justice system. Mr. Libby also lends his time and heart to the Maine Hospice Council and the Restorative Justice Project of Maine.
  • Victoria Scott: Scott is an interdisciplinary student of justice studies and transformative systems planning with a minor in psychology, currently completing her BA at the University of Maine at Augusta. She is presently incarcerated at the Southern Maine Women’s Reentry Center of the Maine Department of Corrections, works as a fellow with the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison and with the Colby College Justice Think Tank, and serves as a facilitator for Colby College’s Freedom & Captivity Project and the Maine Humanities Council.

The Impact

Our Opportunity Scholars will gain invaluable skills for their career development, including serving as trainers, faculty, and staff providing peer support to justice system practitioners. Local governments and national institutions of higher learning will use their recommendations and insights to improve the educational opportunities and experiences of justice-impacted students and increase enrollment and degree completion, especially through the reentry process.

Opportunity Scholars will also develop resources and community tools that call attention to the brilliance of students who are incarcerated. They will work on a number of projects with CEPP, including:

  • An educational manifesto to guide their work
  • A symposium on gender justice
  • The third annual Abolition Night, a collaborative poetry anthology centered on the effects of parental incarceration with the Columbia Center for Justice’s Right/Write to Heal creative group
  • Monthly Opportunity Scholar meetings

Opportunity Scholars will provide high-level community engagement that humanizes people in prisons by centering their voices and promoting narrative change. When we create opportunities for our most vulnerable citizens to advance, we build stronger, safer communities.

Project Website


  • Skye Adams
  • Mara Sanchez