Jailhouse Rock Star: From Dropout to Doctorate to Public Servant

Too often, American criminal justice resembles the infamous campaign commercial featuring inmates passing through a revolving door. Susan Neustrom, Ed.D. says, of those locked up in today’s prisons, 63 percent will be back behind bars within three years—four out of five within six months of release.
But Neustrom is trying to change that. A graduate of College of DuPage, Neustrom today directs JUST (Justice, Understanding, Service and Teaching) of DuPage, a nonprofit organization that provides education and hope to incarcerated people at DuPage County Jail.
JUST offers programs in spirituality, addiction recovery, behavior change and more. But Neustrom says it’s education that makes the biggest difference.
“When education programs are administered, we see a 29 percent reduction in recidivism,” Neustrom said. “That’s huge. So we help inmates learn, understand how to learn and instill the desire to learn.” Some of the educational programs, including GED coursework, benefit from partnerships with College of DuPage.
If inmates need a remarkable second-chance example, they need look no further than Neustrom.
A high-school dropout at age 16, the Woodridge, Ill. native went more than three decades before continuing her formal education at College of DuPage.
“I really disliked school,” said Neustrom. “I disliked the subjects, I had difficulty studying and many of my friends were dropouts,” she said. “I felt that I was not as smart as the other students and I gave up.”
Neustrom married, raised two children and worked in banking, starting at entry-level and working her way up to assistant vice president.
Then, at age 48, she overcame her fear of educational failure and started over. First, she passed a GED test offered by College of DuPage. Then, she enrolled in the Adult Fast Track Program to complete associate’s degrees in management and retail marketing. Neustrom says those early classroom successes not only built her confidence as a student, but as an employee. She earned employee-of-the-year honors at her bank based largely on projects she completed as part of her College of DuPage coursework.
Having volunteered for organizations that help people in need, Neustrom had her sights set on a new career involving social work.
So Neustrom earned a bachelor’s in management, followed by a master’s in organizational leadership, followed by a doctorate in education.
It’s an educational journey she attributes to that first shot of self-confidence at COD.
“When I first took my GED tests, I was intimidated by the thought of being in college,” said Neustrom. “I felt that I was too stupid to even consider it. So if I could just get a GED, I would be happy. But everyone I encountered at COD was supportive and empathetic. No one at COD ever told me what I could not do. They only told me what I could do.”
Today, it’s a philosophy she’s instilling in DuPage County’s inmates. Judging from the notebooks filled with positive testimonials, it’s making an impact.
“Every JUST class was great and helpful to me,” wrote one inmate. “It has inspired me to do better by my son and never come back.”