AACC Outstanding Alum named a MacArthur Fellow

Reginald Dwayne Betts (Photo: MacArthur Foundation)

When Reginald Dwayne Betts received the 2013 American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) Outstanding Alumni Award – one of the youngest to receive the award – he wasn’t able to attend the ceremony. He was teaching that day.

The 2007 Prince George’s Community College (PGCC) graduate was an adjunct faculty member in Massachusetts at Middlesex Community College, Emerson College and Bunker Hill Community College at the time. In fact, his Outstanding Alumni nomination form listed him as “poet and adjunct professor.”

Since then, he has earned a law degree from Yale Law School and is now a doctoral candidate in law at Yale.

And on Tuesday, Betts received a new – slightly bigger – honor: He was named a MacArthur Fellow, an honor bestowed by the MacArthur Foundation that celebrates the creative potential of individuals. The MacArthur “genius” grants – as they’re often called – also come with $625,000. He’s now listed as a “poet and lawyer.”

“When students enroll at Prince George’s Community College, they demonstrate their commitment to a better future, which is exactly what happened with Mr. Betts,” said Dean Wilson, assistant director for development at PGCC. “His many achievements are what we expect from our alumni and invest in from the moment that a student enrolls at Prince George’s Community College.”

Betts joins a special group of community college alumni and leaders who have received the MacArthur award, including 1992 Fellow Robert McCabe, who was president of Florida’s Miami Dade College (then Miami Dade Community College) from 1980 to 1995, and 2015 Fellow Juan Salgado, chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago (also a 2016 AACC Outstanding Alumni Award recipient).

Forging a new future

In his work as a poet and lawyer, Betts promotes the rights and humanity of people who are or have been incarcerated. His work is informed by his experience with incarceration after being tried as an adult for a carjacking when he was 16.

In a write-up on Betts for the AACC Outstanding Alumni program, he said, “The doors were wide open to me at PGCC regardless of my past experiences.” After graduating from the Maryland college, where he started the YoungMenRead, a book club for Black boys, he continued his education and taught poetry.

His first book was “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison,” published in 2009. It chronicles Betts’s years in prison. He has written three acclaimed collections of poetry, the recently published “Felon,” “Bastards of the Reagan Era” and “Shahid Reads His Own Palm.”

“His poetry reflects both his legal training — particularly his deep engagement with scholarship on notions of guilt, punishment, and justice — and his command of craft,” according to the MacArthur Foundation.  

AACC-member colleges have until October 22 to send nominations for the 2022 AACC Outstanding Alumni Awards.

As a practicing lawyer, Betts fights for clemency and parole for individuals facing lengthy sentences.

Betts also recently launched the nonprofit Freedom Reads. It gives incarcerated people access to the power of literature. Freedom Reads donates books and shelving for libraries, organizes author visits, and sets up book circles in prisons and juvenile detention facilities.

He has received numerous awards and accolades for his work, including the PEN New England Award for poetry for “Bastards of the Reagan Era.” He was named a 2018 Guggenheim Fellow and a 2018 NEA Fellow, among other fellowships.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.