There are non-traditional students at Fisher, and then there’s Harley Blakeman.

The graduating senior would be the first to characterize his journey to an operations degree and a passion for entrepreneurship as a winding one — one filled with heartbreak, poor decisions, unconditional love, resilience and now, redemption.

After receiving his degree at Ohio State’s 415th Commencement ceremony, Blakeman will dive headfirst into the uncharted waters of entrepreneurship as he launches Just Corrections LLC, an organization he created to help those with criminal records re-enter society and develop successful careers.

In addition to founding the organization, developing a curriculum to counsel inmates and connecting with corrections officials throughout the state to offer the program in prisons, Harley has written a book, titled Grit: How to Get a Job and Build a Career With a Criminal Record.

It’s more than a pet project, Harley says. It’s his passion.

“The road to where I’m at may not have been what I envisioned, but I think there’s something to be said about turning a negative into a positive and using my experience to help others,” Blakeman said.

The Past

Seven years ago, at age 19, Harley found himself not as a first-year student settling in at a college or university in his home state of Florida, but as an inmate at the Treutlen Probation Detention Center in Soperton, Georgia, serving a 14-month sentence for trafficking prescription drugs, shoplifting and theft.

Family instability, substance abuse, depression and bad influences among his peers had helped land Harley in prison, but a support network of Ohio-based family was determined to help him succeed once he was out. Harley earned his GED while in prison and attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings to treat his drug addiction. Upon his release, his aunt, Tara Rahm, and his grandmother, Patsy Gardner, brought Harley to Ohio to begin a new life, albeit begrudgingly.

Read more about Harley's journey in The Columbus Dispatch

Once in Columbus, Harley spent the next few years mowing lawns, washing dishes, working as a cook and even managing a retail store to save money for a college education. He enrolled at Columbus State Community College with a focus on business, but it wasn’t long until he began exploring Fisher, calling it his ultimate dream.

“I had a criminal record, and I knew if I got a business degree I would have business knowledge,” Harley says. “A lot of people come to college because they’re investing in a degree. But I was investing in myself. I wanted the knowledge, the know-how of how to do my own cost accounting, how to do my own marketing. Having the degree might get me the job, but more than likely, I would need to make work for myself, which I’m excited to do.”

Harley Blakeman 2
Harley Blakeman speaks at his book launch event at the Blackwell.

Harley remembers applying to Fisher almost on a whim — with the expectation that he wouldn’t be accepted. When a letter from Ohio State arrived a few weeks later, Harley opened it fully expecting a rejection. Instead, he became emotional at seeing the word “Congratulations,” and immediately jumped on the phone to share the news with his aunts, Tara and Renee Ayers, and his grandmother.

“I teared up and couldn’t believe it. I was so happy. I had just been admitted to the university that my aunt and my uncle both went to,” he remembers thinking. “When I applied, I was shooting for the stars. You have to bet on yourself a lot to be able to get to somewhere before people will start betting on you.”

The Future

Admittedly, the learning curve for a non-traditional students with Harley’s background was steep. There were doubts, he says, along with feelings of inadequacy, and academic and cultural challenges. But Harley remained determined. He was selected to be a part of the Dean’s Leadership Academy as well as the Fisher Leaders program.

“The students at Fisher helped me grow a lot, because it was a whole other dynamic, a whole other level of professionalism,” he says. “There isn’t a university out there that can expunge a felony from your record. But what Fisher provided me was the ability and the opportunity to get in front of recruiters who want the skills and the confidence Fisher instilled in me.”

Paul Reeder, executive director of The Ohio State Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, has seen firsthand Harley’s dedication to launching his venture.

“What sets Harley apart are his singular driven vision of success and willingness to outwork almost all other students I have worked with,” Reeder says. “I often ask him, ‘Have you slept and are you eating OK?’ He’s not intimidated by anyone and will cold call and talk to anyone to make a connection. He doesn’t waste any time getting someone on the phone and setting up a meeting.”

Reeder was one of nearly 100 people in attendance recently at an event, ostensibly to launch Harley’s book. But in keeping with his mission to help others, the event was less a book launch than a forum to raise awareness about the challenges faced by the formerly incarcerated. A panel discussion featuring individuals with criminal records shared their experiences, Franklin County Commissioner Marilyn Brown spoke, and leaders from educational and nonprofit organizations provided insights into their ongoing efforts to help address the ever-increasing need for community programs and opportunities.

Harley Blakeman 4
Formerly incarcerated individuals share their experiences as part of a panel discussion at a book launch event organized by Harley Blakeman.

At the launch, Harley, decked out in his own suit and tie, spends the evening mingling with his guests and delivering a keynote. The frenzy of the book release, final exams and the launch of Just Corrections has left little time for reflection. But anyone at the event who truly knows Harley knows how far he’s come — from the darkness of addiction; from a prison cell in Georgia; from a string of minimum-wage jobs; from the self-consciousness of attending career fairs and interviews in a suit bought at Goodwill; from the pipe dream of a college degree, and now, on the verge of launching his own business.

It may not have been the straightest path, nor the most traditional, but it’s Harley’s path, and it’s clear: he wouldn’t want it any other way.

“Four years ago, I only had a GED, no high school education, no college education, no job, and now I’m here and I’m OK,” he says. “What I don’t think would be OK is if I took a job and went on with my life, my money, my job and my fiancée. Because right now, I think I have the opportunity to try to help anyone else who is like me — anyone who needs a push in the right direction that I got when I was 18 or 19 years old.”

Harley Blakeman 3
Harley Blakeman's book, which draws upon his experience finding and keeping employment despite having a criminal record.