‘I’d Love to See BU Become a National Leader in College-in-Prison Programming and Collegiate Recovery’
Noel Vest is channeling his past experience with substance misuse and a seven-year prison sentence into public health research and advocacy aiming to improve educational opportunities for vulnerable populations struggling with similar challenges.
In third grade, Noel Vest took a test to get into his school’s gifted program, but fell short of qualifying. That setback shattered Vest’s confidence and self-esteem, and his ambitious attitude dissolved into personal and academic apathy throughout the rest of his childhood.
What eight-year-old Vest didn’t know at the time was that he would go on to develop many gifts, including a mastery of statistical methods and empirical evidence and a deeply personal understanding of mental illnesses and substance use disorders, and how these conditions disproportionately affect incarcerated people and college students. Perhaps most emphatically, he developed a desire to destigmatize these issues and draw from his own history of substance use and prior incarceration to advocate for better educational and economic opportunities for current and formerly incarcerated individuals.
Vest’s past struggles and journey to overcome them now guide much of his research as an assistant professor of community health sciences at the School of Public Health, where he studies how substance use disorders and mental health challenges intersect among a variety of populations. He also studies how to improve care and support services for people in substance use recovery, and his research extends to recidivism, prison reentry interventions, and systemic, discriminatory issues that have long plagued the US criminal justice system.
“One quote that holds so much meaning to me is ‘those closest to the problem are those closest to the solution—but they are also furthest from the power and the resources,’” Vest says, citing sentiments by Glenn Martin, founder of GEMTrainers, a strategic thought partner to leaders driving social justice change. “If I had one goal to accomplish in this lifetime, it would be to motivate and inspire individuals in prison to explore opportunities in higher education. The experience for me has been extremely transformative in ways I had never imagined.”
Vest is senior author of a new conceptual paper that encapsulates these thoughts, presenting the benefits of substance use treatment and recovery studies that include researchers with a lived experience of substance use and incarceration. The Implementation Research and Practice paper argues that researchers who have themselves struggled with drug or alcohol misuse are uniquely positioned to design and conduct these studies and recommend interventions with the insight, accuracy, and sensitivity that is best gleaned from personal experience.
“Many implementation science studies involve community input but that is where inclusion often ends,” Vest says. “We must also seek to include researchers who understand the experience of their study subjects and can build trust within these communities, identify appropriate study questions, and design interventions that are realistic and sustainable.”
Vest also coauthored a new study in the journal Alcohol (his first collaboration with an SPH faculty member, senior author Rachel Sayko Adams) in which he lent his expertise in latent class analysis to examine comorbidities and healthcare utilization among veterans experiencing alcohol misuse.
Vest’s own experience with substance misuse began after a breakup in his late teens. What started as a coping mechanism turned into a severe 14-year dependence on methamphetamine and alcohol, which then ballooned into multiple drug, fraud, and identity theft offenses that he committed to financially sustain this dependence. In the early 2000s, Vest was sentenced to 5-20 years in prison; he ended up serving a total of 7 years in a state prison in Las Vegas, Nev., from 2002 to 2009.
An opportunity for growth
This time in prison brought opportunities for growth, reflection, and healing—Vest joined an Alcoholics Anonymous group and other self-help programs, which helped him achieve sobriety and gain a renewed sense of purpose. He also enrolled in college classes through the College of Southern Nevada’s college-in-prison program.
“I needed inspiration and a reason to believe I wasn’t as dumb as I thought I was all through elementary and high school,” he recalls. “It was exactly what I needed at the time that I needed it.”
These courses reignited the motivation and optimism Vest had lost years ago, and laid the foundation for his aspirations in higher education over the next decade. As soon as he was released from prison, Vest enrolled in community college in Washington state, earning an associate’s degree in chemical dependency counseling before transferring to Washington State University where he received a bachelor’s degree in psychology. After an initial stint as a drug and alcohol counselor, he realized that his brain was much more aligned with technical thinking, and he heeded the advice of his mentor, Dr. Sarah Tragesser, to pursue graduate school. Five years later, he earned a PhD in experimental psychology at WSU, and he arrived at SPH in the summer of 2022 from Stanford University, where he was a postdoctoral scholar in the Systems Neuroscience and Pain Lab. Next semester, he will teach the course Substance Use among Diverse Populations (MC783).
Vest is keenly aware of how fortunate he was to have access to educational and professional opportunities during and after he served time. Few incarcerated individuals have the same options. Despite the fact that nearly 70 percent of incarcerated adults in federal and state prisons express interest in taking college courses—and overwhelming data show that these educational opportunities reduce recidivism—less than half of prisons (and only one-third of state prisons) offer college courses. The vast majority of incarcerated people earn only a GED or high school equivalency while completing their sentence, as prisons tend to prioritize workforce development over higher education.
Discriminatory criminal history question
These numbers are why Vest is working avidly to change state-level policies that contribute to these inequities, starting with one of the most consequential barriers of all: the criminal history question on college applications. Since 2018, he has been a prominent advocate of “Ban the Box” legislation that grew from a national movement fighting for the removal of this question from applications in employment, housing, occupational licensing, and higher education. Advocates argue that removing the requirement to disclose arrest and conviction histories from job and other applications—or at least delaying them until later in the hiring/acceptance process—provides a fair chance for formerly incarcerated people to enter these spaces. Vest successfully testified and helped author the Fair Chance to Education Act in Washington in 2018 and California in 2020, which effectively banned colleges from inquiring about criminal history on their applications (with certain exceptions).
“The question itself is discriminatory,” says Vest, who has his sights set on Massachusetts legislation next. “There’s absolutely no research to show that colleges that have the criminal history box are safer than colleges that don’t.”
There is evidence, however, to suggest that the mere presence of the criminal history question on college applications discourages applicants with a criminal background from completing the application. A New York-based study in 2015 compared the number of college applicants who clicked on this criminal history box on college applications with the number of applicants who actually finished and submitted the application. It found that two-thirds of the people who had a criminal record didn’t go on to complete the application.
“The crazy thing about this finding is that, of the people who did complete the application, only 10 percent were not accepted,” Vest says. “So potentially 50 percent of the people who didn’t go on to finish the application very well could have gotten into the school.”
Embracing sobriety in college
Collegiate recovery programs (CRPs) are another focus of Vest’s work, as he aims to fill a major dearth in research on the effectiveness of these programs in providing support, programming, and resources to students with a history of drug and alcohol use. Despite the fact that CRPs have expanded by 500 percent over the last several years, only one National Institute of Health-funded study to date has evaluated these programs, Vest says.
But that will change over the next five years, thanks to a K01 award that he received last year from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to investigate CRPs across the country and develop an implementation toolkit for university staff and communities to ensure that they are meeting students’ needs. Vest is currently in the data collection phase of the project and has traveled to colleges large and small, including Texas Tech; Penn State; University of California, Santa Barbara; and Augsburg University in Minneapolis, Minn., to gauge students’ perspectives and learn the challenges or limitations within these programs—often a lack of funding or awareness that the CRPs exist.
“I know what it’s like trying to stay sober on a college campus,” Vest says. “It was difficult for me at age 35, so I know it’s even harder for younger people to stay substance-free.”
BU offers a CRP through Student Health Services, and he hopes to expand its programming and reach in the future.
“I’d love to see BU become a national leader in college-in-prison programming and collegiate recovery over the next 10 years,” Vest says. He is in the final stages of a comprehensive, first-of-its-kind analysis of the level of criminal history involvement among college students in recovery. “I’d love to see the university offer master’s and PhD-level courses to students inside of prisons, and also to students making the transition from prison to the general community.”