By Logan Hullinger
INDIANA — Aaron D. Seidel is busy.
The fifth-year Indiana University of Pennsylvania undergraduate triple-majors in geoscience, environmental engineering and applied mathematics. In March he won a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship. As an April 18 IUP news release reported, the award is the preeminent honor of its kind, given to outstanding STEM undergraduates nationwide to encourage careers in their fields.
On April 17, Seidel presented his research in Harrisburg. He was the first IUP student to place at the annual Undergraduate Research at the Capitol Pennsylvania poster competition, an annual event that invites students statewide to pitch their work to lawmakers. Seidel’s poster, “Application of Ground Penetrating Radar and the Complex Refractive Index Model to Estimate Methane Dynamics of Semi-Natural Environments,” placed third.
Seidel studies geoscience for “the betterment of humanity” and seeks to conduct research in arid regions to maximize access to clean water through irrigation and agriculture engineering “to optimize water efficiency and improve crop yields in African countries.”
He volunteers at a local animal shelter.
Faculty mentors use superlatives to describe his scholarship, his service, his work ethic. One faculty collaborator said Seidel was a model and an inspiration, and he expressed pride in what Seidel has achieved and what he can accomplish in a promising career.
But there is one catch:
Seidel is a convicted felon.
SEIDEL GREW UP in Cleveland in a broken home with an abusive stepfather. Seidel said he escaped by moving in with his grandmother at age 9. But three younger siblings — two brothers and a sister — remained in the home, exposed to the abuse.
He dropped out of high school at age 15. He fathered a son. At age 18, while distraught and drunk on a fifth of Bacardi, he decided to save his siblings by shooting his stepfather with a pistol. (The shooting was not fatal.)
“It was out of frustration over the inability of the systems in place to take care of my family,” Seidel said, speaking softly during an April 9 interview in IUP’s Stapleton Library. “I felt that I needed to take action, so I sacrificed myself to protect three other children.”
Seidel was tried as an adult and convicted of attempted murder, a first-degree felony, he said. He was sentenced to five years in state prison.
While behind bars, he received his General Equivalency Diploma and spent much of his time reading books. He knew he wanted to attend college. But he couldn’t foresee the roadblocks that a felony record erects.
IN 2009, OHIO RELEASED him. In 2013, at the age of 26, Seidel was admitted to IUP as an undergraduate.
During the second half of his freshman year, he slept on a couch in Walsh Hall, which houses the university’s Geoscience Department. The couch, less than 5 feet long, is where he would awaken, head to the gym and shower before classes.
“It was embarrassing and I didn’t want anyone to know,” Seidel said. “At the same time, I thought it was the world asking me, ‘How bad do you want this?’”
Seidel, now 32, lives with his wife and two dogs in Indiana’s Westgate apartment complex. He remains close to his son and his siblings, he said.
He is planning to create a club on campus for previously incarcerated students to help them adjust. The number of IUP students with criminal records is unknown.
However, IUP says it is one of four universities in Pennsylvania — 67 in the nation — — to offer Pell Grants to people in prison seeking post-secondary education.
Seidel’s scholarly and service achievements are praised by IUP faculty members and an administrator.
“Aaron’s resiliency, tenacity, dedication, and willingness to learn motivates me to be a better scientist and educator,” geoscience professor Gregory Mount said in an April 18 IUP news release. “I couldn’t be more proud of his accomplishments and how he has grown as a scholar, and I can’t wait to see his work and successes as he moves forward.”
Rhonda Luckey, vice president for student affairs, praised Seidel’s academic achievements in an April 19 email.
“He is an exemplar of everything we hope our students achieve as university citizens,” Luckey wrote. “Aaron has worked hard here at IUP and is an asset to the IUP and greater community. Many members of the IUP community have encouraged and mentored Aaron to pursue academic excellence.”
Neither Mount nor Luckey responded to requests for comment about Seidel’s prospects after he completes his three undergraduate degrees within two years.
SEIDEL’S ONLY ROUTE to graduate school is through the office of Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich, who can issue a pardon.
As a convicted felon, Seidel can’t pass a background check to obtain financial aid and attend graduate school, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
Seidel had assumed his criminal record could be “talked through or worked out on a case-by-case basis.” That has been true during his undergraduate education at IUP.
But Seidel faces a barrier to graduate study, he said.
“When I’m optimistic, I think that someone who has accomplished what I have is the gold mark for what people want to see out of being rehabilitated through the system of law,” he said. “Unfortunately, people don’t realize how the system indirectly oppresses millions of people in the country, even when they get out of prison.”
SEIDEL’S CIRCUMSTANCE places him squarely at the center of a national debate over criminal justice reform.
Estimates of the number of U.S. citizens with criminal records vary widely — from 19 million to more than 70 million, depending on definition. A statistic cited by conservatives and liberals alike reports that the United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but it houses a quarter of the world’s prison population. Seidel cites statistics on convicted felons — 30 million, he says, with a recidivism rate of 80 percent.
A felony record can wreck any future that requires a background check, including buying a home, voting in elections, seeking employment or working for IUP. Seidel volunteered to read to the elderly at a home near Apollo. The home denied him.
‘My five-year sentence is a life sentence.’
— Aaron D. Seidel
“My five-year sentence is a life sentence,” Seidel said in a March 30 interview in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences building.
RECENTLY, state governments have taken initiatives to restore some rights of convicted felons. For example, on April 18, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowed to grant voting rights to thousands of paroled felons.
However, action on the educational element of justice reform is like the wheels of justice — slow. And education is what matters most to Seidel. Without a pardon from Ohio Gov. Kasich, he said, these roadblocks remain, blocking his access to grad school.
Last year, Seidel created an online petition to publicize his need for a full pardon. The petition has drawn more than 1,000 signatures.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Dave L. Reed, R-Indiana, and state Sen. Don C. White, R-Indiana, agreed to write letters to Kasich to request a pardon for Seidel.
Joe Pittman, White’s spokesman, confirmed in an April 18 phone call that White wrote the letter on Seidel’s behalf, but the office “never got a response back.”
White’s office declined to provide a copy of the letter.
Rep. Reed and Gov. Kasich didn’t respond to April 18 and April 20 phone calls inquiring about the letters.
SEIDEL’S CONCERN IS LARGER than himself, he said.
“Professors have tried to protect me by telling me not to go public with the issue and quietly take a pardon,” he said. “However, it’s my responsibility to represent something larger than myself going forward. It would be selfish to consider myself an exception.”
“I’m putting my heart, soul, the rest of my youth into this,” he said. “I take full responsibility for everything, and I’m very hard on myself. However, I know this is bigger than me.”
The toll that his felony record has taken on his life reflects deeply rooted problems with the criminal justice system, Seidel said. The current process is a “waste of resources, waste of money and a waste of human potential,” he added.
Seidel accepts his past misdeeds but criticized the post-prison experience.
“Not enough people realize how the prison system affects people,” he said. “People like me can’t get a meaningful job, buy a home or achieve the educational level they desire. So what do they want us to do?”
Seidel has backup plans. They include continuing to pursue as an undergraduate his graduate-level research agenda, with grants from the National Science Foundation, and advocating for people with criminal records who seek higher education.
“I will never look back and question whether I did everything I possibly could,” he said. “If this life is meant for me to advocate for this, then so be it. I’ve made 200 years of plans for myself, so I’ll never run out of things to do.”
Aaron Seidel is busy.
Logan R. Hullinger, a senior journalism major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a staff reporter for The HawkEye, is from Clarion. He may be contacted at L.R.Hullinger@iup.edu
Sidebar: To get involved
For more information, or to get involved in issues related to Aaron Seidel’s case, contact the following sources and organizations:
John R. Kasich
State of Ohio
Riffe Center, 30th Floor
77 South High Street
Columbus, OH 43215-6117
Phone: (614) 466-3555
State Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana
550 Philadelphia St.
Indiana, Pa. 15701
Phone: (724) 465-0220
Sen. Don White, R-Indiana
618 Philadelphia St.
Indiana, Pa. 15701
Phone: (724) 357-0151
The Marshall Project
156 West 56th Street, Suite 701
New York, NY 10019