COLUMBUS (WCMH) — C. Ray clocked about five hours in bed Thursday night into Friday morning.

From the finishing touches on master’s commencement preparations to meeting with an incarcerated woman whose mother died that same morning, to an evening bartending shift at a Cheesecake Factory across the city, very few blanks manifested themselves on her Google calendar last week.  

She was still trying to squeeze in time to decorate her graduation hat for the weekend’s ceremonies — maybe, she said, with the mugshots of a friend or two. “So they can walk with me,” Ray said.

It was not busy like this a few years ago. A few years ago, she had more time to — and for — herself. 

“I was such a good version of myself when I was incarcerated,” Ray said. “I would drink my coffee, I would go work out. I would live the life I wish I could live now, if I had time for it. It’s a double-edged sword.”

Ray was released from prison in March 2018, after a more than three-and-a-half-year sentence for a felony conviction. She served time at both the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville and the Dayton Correctional Institution.  

On Sunday, a little more than five years later, she earned her second post-prison degree: a master’s in social work, after finishing her bachelor’s in 2022. It was one of more than 12,000 degrees and certificates conferred over the weekend, according to an Ohio State University spokesperson. Close to 400 students earned their master’s of social work.

Ray earned her second degree — a master’s in social work from Ohio State University — on Sunday. Five years ago, she was finishing a three-and-a-half year sentence. (Courtesy Photo/C. Ray)

“Prison sucks. It does,” Ray said. “But for me, when I look back and think about prison, I loved it — and I didn’t love it for the violent system that it was. But I loved it for who I became in spite of it, the community I was able to grow. I loved the person I was able to become.”

The 33-year-old lives in Grove City with her mother; her wife, Cassie; and their corgi chihuahua mix Fifi, but is originally from Franklinton. 

She graduated from the Columbus School for Girls in 2008, through tuition assistance, and was on track to go to Ohio University. But the summer before her freshman year, she said she found herself trying out drugs and hanging out with a “clique” close to home that she didn’t want to leave — so she didn’t.

Ray instead enrolled at Columbus State Community College, and at age 18, was also convicted of her first felony. 

Although the aim was to eventually get a bachelor’s from Ohio State, as her drug addiction worsened, she withdrew from school altogether. In 2015, she was facing a yearslong sentence stemming from another felony conviction. 

But her incarceration fueled her fire.

“The woman is a powerhouse,” said Mary Thomas, an Ohio State professor and the director of its Ohio Prison Education Exchange Project, which advocates for incarcerated students’ easier access to higher education and offers classes in correctional facilities. 

Ray dove head first into involvement with reentry programs — or programs that assist individuals with reentering a community after their incarceration — locally after her release. Aside from serving on OPEEP’s advisory board, she works with the Returning Artists Guild, Healing Broken Circles, and ARCH Reentry.

“She’s been a student at OSU, very successfully,” Thomas said. “It’s not enough to just be a good student. You have to build a whole ecosystem around that student.” 

Navigating higher education as someone who is formerly incarcerated came with its own set of hurdles

“I’m in the right field to be able to have a criminal record,” Ray said.

But she got denied from internship programs for some time, eventually learning of a misfiling in the system that made it seem like she was still on probation. Half a dozen of her close friends have died in recent years, either of addiction or from violence, and she said she sometimes feels a sense of “survivor’s guilt” for those who are still incarcerated.

With her master’s in the rearview, she will start full-time work managing cases and advocating for public policy with ARCH. 

“I would do this stuff for free,” she said. “It means so much to me, and there’s always so much work to do — like it’s just never enough.”

In the coming weeks, she will also make the half-an-hour trek to Marysville to teach an advocacy class at the Ohio Reformatory for Women.