PEP Writing Tutor Wins Truman Scholarship

Video: Tom Malkowicz/Washington University

The Prison Education Project (PEP) is excited to announce that one of our writing tutors, Max Klapow, has been selected as a recipient of the prestigious Truman scholarship, a graduate fellowship for college students pursuing careers as public service leaders. In Fall 2019, Max served as a writing tutor for the PEP Critical and Researched Writing course taught at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center (MECC) Campus by Victoria Thomas. This semester, Max was the teaching assistant for the PEP Introduction to Creative Writing course taught by Gabrielle Montesanti.

Max’s scholarship application centered on his proposal to improve the mental health of incarcerated populations by including positive psychology in the writing classes offered in prisons. This proposal followed on from the work he completed in an Independent Study under the mentorship of Victoria Thomas in Washington University’s Prison Education Project. Max is a Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology major with a particular interest in positive psychology and mental health, and Dr. Thomas invited him to join her as a tutor and resident positive psychology expert in her PEP Critical and Researched Writing class. Collaborating with Max, Dr. Thomas incorporated the principles of positive psychology into her teaching, tailoring the writing exercises to lead students to an understanding of the benefits of positive psychology. Max was able to help students engage with his research, and prepare helpful positive psychology handouts. His administration of the VIA character strengths survey, which he graded and then returned to the students so they could see what their psychological strengths were, was especially important to the students. They appreciated Max’s own enthusiasm for his subject matter, and by the end of the semester they were using the positive psychology tools they had learned as a matter of course. No formal measurements were taken of the efficacy of the course on their well-being, but the students voluntarily reported how universally effective it had been and how much they appreciated having learned it.

The Prison Education Project changed my life. Within minutes of working with our students, I witnessed more of a drive, resilience, and humility beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. It has been a privilege to help provide the highest quality education to brilliant, ambitious, and dedicated people, and I cannot underscore how formative this work has been to my own education at Washington University. The corrections system is designed to be forgotten, but the Prison Education Project works to bring opportunity and visibility to its students. This program provides incarcerated students with the tools and opportunities to thrive, and it provides undergraduates and faculty alike the chance to do something rare in prison: form connections and acknowledge students’ humanity. It’s part of what makes WashU unique and inclusive, and it’s instilled in me the drive to fight for the wellbeing of all communities. With the support of the Prison Education Project, Washington University, and the Harry S. Truman Foundation, I will continue to work to bring resiliency, wellbeing, and high-quality education to our students.

– Max Klapow

Max’s proposal is to take the writing course that Dr. Thomas created, along with his positive psychology materials, and encourage the Department of Corrections to incorporate the course into programs that are already in place in prisons. To implement his project across the board would not take more funding or great effort but simply the willingness to implement it, some training, and access to the materials that he and Dr. Thomas prepared. They are planning to post all the materials for the course freely on the web.

Max plans to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology and continue leveraging the science of psychological resiliency and well-being to support incarcerated and formerly incarcerated communities. Congratulations, Max!

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