Berkeley School of Education alumna Nora Kenney-Whitley took a meandering path through community college to her Berkeley PhD, stopping at an unfulfilling tech job along the way, before launching into her life’s work.
Now, Kenney-Whitley MA '05, PhD '09 is featured prominently in the Emmy-award winning film Almost Home: Life After Incarceration about her work with formerly incarcerated students at Palomar College in northern San Diego County.
“It’s very strange seeing my life on the big screen, but it’s all stuff I learned while I was at the BSE,” said Kenney-Whitley. “My time at the Berkeley School of Education was … absolutely pivotal in my life. It feels like home. The BSE and the Bay Area are definitely the home of my heart.”
Almost Home, produced and directed by the award-winning Bill Wisneski at Palomar College Television, follows two students who are formerly incarcerated and enrolled at the community college in San Marcos, Calif. One student has faced a severe mental health crisis and the other had been involved with gangs and the penal system since childhood.
Similar to the more than 600,000 others across the country who are released from prison each year, the students leave incarceration without support and find themselves alone in navigating an educational system that locks them out at every turn — until they discover a unique program at Palomar.
Kenney-Whitley had just begun her position as a program coordinator at Palomar in March 2020 when the COVID pandemic forced virtually everything to shut down in-person and reopen online. By that time, she had spent years teaching in teacher education, at Laney College and Contra Costa College in the Bay Area, and at MiraCosta College, an alma mater in Oceanside, Calif. While teaching at the Vista Detention Facility, her local county jail, she discovered a passion and pivoted her career to focus more on working with formerly incarcerated students.
As the pandemic shut down the world and ushered in a myriad of unknowns, she moved quickly to continue offering the credit-bearing classes and a summer bridge program online to students who were formerly incarcerated or still incarcerated in the nearby jail where she’d taught.
“I felt like people are going to really need this now,” she said.
Filmmakers from Palomar College Television, a production group that has won 35 Emmys over the years*, came by Kenney-Whitley’s Zoom sessions and started a two-year journey of documenting and storytelling. The film includes footage from the height of COVID shutdowns when Kenney-Whitley and students were masking as she handed them laptops in parking lots.
Finding direction in community college
Kenney-Whitley grew up in San Clemente, Calif., in a working class family with six siblings. Her father didn’t finish high school and her mother gave up a scholarship to Barnard when she got pregnant.
Kenney-Whitley struggled in high school and ran away from home more than once. She dropped out of two California State universities and multiple community colleges.
Then, one teacher — an English professor at MiraCosta College — was life-changing.
“I went from about five years of floundering to finishing community college, getting straight A’s, and signing a transfer agreement with UC Davis,” she said.
She intended to be an English professor, but ended up in the tech industry in Silicon Valley, San Diego, and San Francisco. The work wasn’t fulfilling.
“I knew it wasn’t my special purpose or my path,” Kenney-Whitley said. “I felt it was socially and environmentally irresponsible for me personally to dedicate my personal and professional energies in the tech space.”
She took a break from that work to travel in Greece — where she has roots — and had another transformative experience. She met then-Education Professor Herb Simons and his wife Liz, who encouraged her to consider graduate studies in education and eventually connected her with BSE Professor Glynda Hull.
Kenney-Whitley only applied to UC Berkeley because she was determined to immerse herself in a school committed to social justice. Over six years, she earned her master’s and PhD. She worked closely with Hull, whose research included engaging with Oakland students on cutting-edge work with digital storytelling and other kinds of technology. “The work I was doing with Glynda and BSE was so invigorating,” said Kenney-Whitley.
She spent about 10 years teaching Education 140, BSE’s seminal class for undergraduates. Her dissertation was an ethnography that followed a group of friends, all men of color, and chronicled their pathways, which took some to elite colleges and some to prison.
She credits her time at BSE with preparing her for the challenging and inspiring work at Palomar.
“We help students to see not just what they’re doing now, but what’s next in their professional careers,” she said about the Palomar program. “Almost Home shows how the program is closing those institutional, those systemic gaps.”
Kenney-Whitley is somewhat embarrassed when she thinks about the success of the program, which greatly reduces recidivism.
“Why does it have to be us?” she asks. “This kind of support should be built into the system for those getting out of prisons.”
And, Kenney-Whitley says, she still cries every time she watches the film.