Francis Salas will graduate from the University of New Mexico with his B.S. Degree in Electrical Engineering in mid-May. Five years ago even he couldn’t envision this moment. He was in federal prison, nearing the end of a 10-year sentence for drug passion with intent to distribute a controlled substance.
Salas grew up in a poor neighborhood in Bernalillo, New Mexico. “I started doing and selling drugs when I was in middle school and ended up dropping out of high school,” he said. But in a moment of clarity he did get his GED.
His attitude change took years. “I got arrested and it’s like – oh, I’m facing ten years. I’m 20 years old at the time and I know this is weird to explain, but it was never like ‘This is serious.’ It was in the back of my mind, but it’s more like a tough guy thing. Now it’s my turn. I’m gonna go do this and that’s just how it is.”
And that’s how it was for the next several years as he cycled through the federal system in Oklahoma, in Texas, in Kentucky finally in Colorado. While in Kentucky, he landed in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day with time to think. When he returned to the general population, his cellmate was a man who had been locked up for 30 years and was studying languages. “He kind of got me into it and I started studying Spanish and French and you know at this point I had already developed the thought process that I can do something legal. I don’t have to go out and do something bad,” he said. His first goal was to get into school.
Being in solitary confinement helped him in one way. He got away from people, and he learned how to rely on himself to move forward in life.
That helped when he was released and came back to New Mexico. “Of the close friends that I had before I went in, I have contact with one. Literally just one. I will meet up with him and have lunch. He completely changed his life and what he is doing and that’s why I have contact with him. It may sound selfish, but in the larger scheme of things, I’ve got to worry about me.”
When he was released to the half-way house, he immediately went to Central New Mexico Community College and signed up for classes. He got straight A’s his first semester. A CNM instructor persuaded him to look into science and math. He really liked the physics course he took on electricity and magnetism and he started to think about UNM.
It hasn’t been easy. Salas said, “I don’t immediately get concepts. I get really good grades. I go home and do every problem in the book, every reader. I’m not like – oh, that what it is, now I am going to go watch YouTube for a few hours. I put a lot of time into it because it’s hard, but also because it’s fascinating.”
He recently went back to the halfway house as a guest speaker. He said, “I was trying to tell them, if you really want to do something different you have to be strict with yourself. Set goals and don’t look up old friends.”
Salas is about to take a much bigger step. In the fall he plans to attend graduate school at the University of Michigan on a fully funded Ph.D. program. “It wasn’t like I got out and I thought oh, I want to go for a Ph.D. you know. I just wanted to get into school. But the goal shifts,” he said. “The goals change and you have to be willing to accept that change and accept those opportunities when they come and just keep moving forward.”