2022 President’s Undergraduate Medalist Steven Hensley rises above poverty and incarceration 

Student of Distinction: Steven Hensley

“Five years ago, I was starving on a park bench after being released from prison. I didn’t know how to navigate the free world.”

Steven Hensley had been incarcerated since the age of seventeen. Following his release, he worked tirelessly to secure employment, housing, and admission into Fresno State.

“Today, I am studying philosophy and working to alleviate conditions of inequity in the community,” Hensley said. 

Now, Hensley is the undergraduate Dean’s Medalist for the College of Arts and Humanities and the President’s Undergraduate Medalist for the University. He has completed honors projects in two colleges, earning a B.A. in Philosophy, pre-law option and a B.A. in Political Science in May. 

During his first semester at Fresno State, Hensley co-founded Youngsters for Change, a non-profit organization designed to help at-risk and formerly incarcerated youth. They have partnered with various community organizations, including the juvenile justice department. 

At Fresno State, he has been the student coordinator for Bulldogs for Recovery, a student health and counseling center program concerned with recovery from addiction. Outside the university, Hensley serves as co-chair of the ACLU Fresno County Chapter, where he is working to stop law enforcement from conducting illegal sweeps of homeless encampments. Recently, he was elected to serve a three-year term on the Board of Directors for ACLU of Northern California. 

Hensley has been on the President’s list every semester at Fresno State. Additionally, he received a certificate of recognition from Assembly Member Stone and Senator Newman for completing the California State University Project Rebound Consortium capacity-building workshop series.

Yet tragic life events have significantly tested Hensley’s endurance as a student. Last year, he lost a friend to a hit-and-run accident, his sister gave birth to a child dependent on heroin, and his grandmother died of a fentanyl overdose. Despite these devastating circumstances, he received top grades in his coursework and scored in the 96th percentile on the Law School Admissions Test. As a result, he applied to law degree programs at Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, and Berkeley. Hensley accepted admission to the UC Berkeley School of Law.

Hensley plans to join the legal community by representing the lived experience of those impacted by incarceration and poverty. He believes he can contribute a uniquely empathetic perspective to theoretical legal discussions by harnessing his practical and deeply personal understanding of the justice system.

“Studying philosophy at Fresno State has altered my perception of the world and called me to action. I am no longer freezing or starving on a park bench, but some people are freezing and starving on a park bench, and it is for them that I take this next step forward,” Hensley said. “Very few people have survived prison and worked their way into a position to apply to law school. Knowing that grim reality, I choose to serve as a voice for a severely underrepresented population in the law school community.”

Carolyn M. Cusick, associate professor of philosophy, agreed, “Most people don’t survive what he has already been through, but Steven is thriving and achieving more than the average person who faced none of those obstacles. Steven is living up to be the person he promised himself he would be and modeling that possibility for others.”

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The College of Arts and Humanities provides a diverse student population with the communication skills, humanistic values and cultural awareness that form the foundation of scholarship. The college offers intellectual and artistic programs that engage students and faculty and the community in collaboration, dialog and discovery. These programs help preserve, illuminate and nourish the arts and humanities for the campus and for the wider community.

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