Monday, September 18, 2017

Michael Ryan: Overcoming the Odds at Cuyamaca College

Michael P. Ryan
Michael P. Ryan had just $800 in his pockets when he walked out of Chino Institution for Men a free man in the fall of 2015. Today, the 56-year-old East County resident who has spent more than half of his life behind bars is building a new future at Cuyamaca College, where he has a GPA just shy of 4.0, is a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, and is steadily moving toward a new career in the water and wastewater industry. 

Being named the new president of the American Water Works Association for the California-Nevada Section’s student chapter – which includes the likes of UC Davis, San Diego State University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas – won’t hurt him in reaching his career goal.

“I couldn’t have done any of this without the people and programs that are available here at Cuyamaca,” said Ryan, who hopes to transfer to San Diego State for a bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences. “Everything is top shelf, from the Health & Wellness Center to the counseling staff to the financial aid people and the auxiliary support. Everything and everyone is aimed at getting you what you need to succeed. I have nothing but good things to say about what is truly a great college.”

Ryan was among the Grossmont and Cuyamaca College students recognized Sept. 9 when he was awarded a $500 Osher Scholarship from the Foundation for Grossmont & Cuyamaca Colleges during a ceremony at the Cuyamaca College Performing Arts Theater.

“I’m honored by the recognition,” said Ryan. “I can’t say ‘Thank you’ enough.”


Ryan’s journey to Cuyamaca College came with more than a few turns along the way. Born and raised in San Diego, Ryan said his downward spiral started when he began drinking while still in middle school. That led to experimenting with drugs, and petty thefts to support his quest to stay high. Ryan said that at various times he was jailed for burglary, auto theft, being an ex-felon in possession of a firearm, and violating parole.  

Ryan said his future began to change at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, where he completed multiple vocational classes and was certified by the state of California as a grade II wastewater plant operator, grade II water plant operator, and a grade II distribution system operator. For three years, he was earning 36 cents per hour as a prison wastewater plant operator.

“I don’t know why I went down that path, but it was a good thing I did,” Ryan said. “It was something I could do, it was something that was challenging but not too hard, and it was something I could enjoy doing.” 

When he walked out of Chino state prison on Oct. 14, 2015, and was paroled to San Diego County, Ryan enrolled in the Cuyamaca College’s award winning Water & Wastewater Technology Program, which offers cutting-edge training programs taught by professionals who help their students network with industry leaders. Ryan’s goal is to become a wastewater plant operator at an industrial site, fracking operation, or perhaps a utility.

Joe Young is the director of Cuyamaca College’s Water & Wastewater Technology Program. He has no doubt about Ryan’s future.

“He is very focused and very motivated to get a job in the water and wastewater industry,” Young said. “He’s just a stand-up guy, and I have really high hopes for him.”

Ryan’s success is all the more remarkable considering the restrictions still placed on his freedom.   Because he attends parole-mandated aftercare programs and attends school full time, money is tight. He lives in a motor home on a friend’s property, and had to borrow textbooks from the library to complete a few of his classes.

But he’s not complaining.

“Hard work and perseverance have been the key to my success, which is putting me on the path to reaching goals,” said Ryan.

“My main thing is to keep my education going and keep moving forward.”