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Obama's Praise Spotlights Alum, Reentry Support Project

<i>Jeffrey Copeland (far left) and other ex-offenders met President Obama (center) at the NAACP convention. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Copeland)</i>

It’s not every day you get a national shout-out from the President of the United States, especially when you’re just an ordinary guy from Philly who’s had some run-ins with the law.

But, as President Obama noted in a revelatory speech to the NAACP on criminal justice reform last week, Jeff Copeland’s determination helps him to stand apart. A formerly incarcerated Philadelphian, he received his associate’s degree, earning high honors, and is now working to complete his bachelor’s degree at Temple University.

Copeland used the Reentry Support Project (RSP) of the Fox Rothschild Center for Law & Society to guide him toward his path. Since 2010, the Reentry project has served over 500 students with criminal records seeking services to help them achieve their academic goals. In 2011, RSP established the REACH College Program to provide a select group of currently and formerly incarcerated men and women with wrap-around support services during their first academic semester. In 2014-2015, REACH enrolled 121 students, and 98 percent of those completed the semester and remained eligible for continuing enrollment. As of summer 2015, REACH has served 180 students.

Admittedly, Copeland would not have the confidence to stay the academic course if not for Tara Timberman, founder and coordinator of the Reentry Support Project. Timberman recruited Copeland to the College while he was still incarcerated. With her support, he was able to alleviate the fears he had about returning to school.

“She held my hand,” Copeland said. “At no point did she say ‘This is too much’ or ‘I’m too busy.’ The Reentry Project enabled me to stand up for myself.”

When President Obama addressed the NAACP in Philadelphia on July 14, he mentioned the College’s Reentry project and shared Copeland’s recent achievements. It was a meaningful moment for Copeland and Timberman, both of whom were seated near the front of the stage.

In addition, Copeland, who had served time for DUI, was invited to meet Obama privately before his speech, along with three other local ex-offenders.

As Vinny Vella, a reporter for the Daily News aptly summed it up: “The discussion was equal parts serious and silly, with thoughtful debates about prison policy interspersed with banter about basketball: Copeland, noting that five men were sitting together, offered to take Obama down to a court in South Philly, where he "was sure we could find five guys to take us on.”

And to think Copeland was once nicknamed “Running Man” after the popular '80's dance because he was running in place and going nowhere fast. Now he’s taking pictures with President Obama and feeling comfortable enough to joke around with him. It’s heady stuff.

"It feels like I’m intoxicated,” he said, “without taking a drink.”