60 Years of Stories! Shawntelle Fisher
“This work is important to me because of my personal involvement with the criminal justice system. I know that if I did not have the support of my family and my community upon return, I would not be where I am today.”
-- Shawntelle Fisher, Founder and CEO, The SoulFisher Ministries
Where Shawntelle Fisher is now is not where she was headed when she neared the end of high school.
Fisher earned an associate degree in communications from St. Louis Community College in 2013. She later founded and continues to operate The SoulFisher Ministries.
Fisher also holds two master’s degrees – one in social work and another in divinity. She is a licensed social worker and drug and alcohol counselor. And she continues to give back to her alma mater, serving as an adjunct professor at STLCC-Florissant Valley, where students can earn a scholarship named after her. She’s also a proud mother.
But before she got out of high school, Fisher got into trouble with the law. She entered the criminal justice system at age 17, after she wrote bad checks to pay for groceries and supplies for her and her infant daughter.
Once in the criminal justice system, she had a hard time getting out, spending the next 20 years in and out of prison.
“About 15 years ago, I was going back to jail for what would be the last time. I was at my wit's end,” Fisher said. “I already had been sick of everybody else for a long time, but I had never really gotten sick of myself.
“So, this time, I'm sick of myself. So, I surrendered my life to Christ that day in St. Louis County Jail – June 9, 2006 – and my life has never been the same.”
Life-Changing Phone Call
As Fisher prepared to be released from prison for the final time, she wanted to go to college. Growing up, she was a bright and good student. Twenty years later, Fisher had no doubts about her capabilities, but wasn’t sure if a college would accept her because of her criminal record.
“I will never forget placing that call to STLCC,” she said “Professor Steve Bai answered the phone. I was calling from federal prison, which meant he had to listen to the recorded introduction and accept the phone call. I told him who I was, where I was and what I wanted to do when I got out.
“He said, ‘Well, I'm less concerned about where you've been, and I'm more concerned about where you're going. If you're serious when you get out, contact me, and we'll take it from there.’ And I did. I enrolled at STLCC and of course, went into the degree program that he was teaching.”
Fisher was committed to making the most of the opportunity. She completed the two-year degree program in one year. When she wasn’t in class, she was in the writing lab honing her ability to write essays. She received top marks and was nominated for the Phi Theta Kappa honor society.
Fisher earned a degree in communications with a focus in broadcasting.
“I even had my own campus radio show. It was all thanks to Professor Bai and STLCC taking an interest in my future,” she said.
Graduating from STLCC with honors earned Fisher the opportunity to attend any public university in Missouri tuition-free. Suddenly, many of the schools that had declined her application a year earlier reconsidered.
Her next stop was the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where she earned degrees in education, media studies and social work while participating in the Pierre Laclede Honors College. After that, she earned an Olin Fellowship from Washington University in St. Louis and completed a dual master’s program in social work and divinity – finishing the four-year program in just three years.
In the seven years after leaving prison, Fisher had earned seven degrees. Having never received anything below an “A” in her coursework, she earned academic scholarships the whole way through.
“I always felt like I was behind. I wasn’t taking on so much because I wanted to stand out,” she said. “I just wanted to get it done. I was reminded that I had always been advanced academically. Once I had the opportunities, I was going to make the most of them.”
Fisher’s most enduring endeavor started as a class project – The SoulFisher Ministries – which began in 2012. With the motto, “Restoration is Possible, Success is Real,” its mission is to respond to the needs of youth with incarcerated parents and to promote restorative justice for those currently or formerly incarcerated. Since 2012, The SoulFisher Ministries' scope and impact have grown immensely.
“This work is important to me because of my personal involvement with the criminal justice system,” Fisher said. “I know that if I did not have the support of my family and my community upon return, I would not be where I am today.”
In addition to leading her organization, Fisher became an adjunct professor in 2021. Her criminal record could have prevented her from teaching. Again, STLCC was there for her.
“STLCC has supported me 1,000 percent above and beyond anything I ever could have hoped for. Professor Bai taking that call, you know, he could have just hung up. The support and opportunities I received as an STLCC student first taught me to become an entrepreneur,” Fisher said. “And not only did they support me while I was there, but they also continue to support me to this day. Dr. Elizabeth Perkins (Florissant Valley campus president) is one of my biggest supporters – and the vice president of the ministries’ board of directors.”
As St. Louis Community College celebrates 60 years, it remains committed to providing educational opportunities and access for all people. Fisher has found another way to give back to the institution that changed her life.
Today, the Shawntelle Fisher Restored for Success Scholarship supports STLCC students who are either formerly incarcerated women or a child of a parent who is formerly or currently incarcerated.
In spring 2022, the first “Restored for Success” recipient graduated from STLCC debt-free. She had been incarcerated for 18 years, beginning when she was 16 years old.
“I think it's just as important that kids who have an incarcerated parent – or were incarcerated themselves – know that they have the support that they need to become successful,” Fisher said. “They need to know that they don't have to follow that same trajectory that society has already paved for them.”