By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Walter Fortson was arrested in 2007 for dealing crack cocaine, he believed a police officer who told him "your life is over."
Five years later, he is an honors student at Rutgers University, and learned this week that he won a $30,000 Truman Scholarship, the only New Jersey undergraduate to receive the prestigious recognition. The national award for graduate school costs is given to outstanding students pursuing careers in government or public affairs.
Fortson, now 27, was still living in a halfway house awaiting parole when he began university classes through a program that allows promising young people with felony convictions to enroll as students.
It was the first glimpse that his future might not be as bleak as it seemed the day of his arrest in Atlantic City.
"The officer told me, 'You know your life is over, right?' I took him at his word," Fortson said on Friday.
After taking a plea deal, he was sentenced to up to five years in prison with the possibility of parole after 26 months.
"I knew that I had to bear the weight of being a felon and I thought that was something I would never be able to shed," he said.
While Fortson was at Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility, he was introduced to Donald Roden, a Rutgers history professor who in 2005 started the program to help felons enroll as students and through which Fortson and 35 other students are currently enrolled.
"He impressed me immediately by his determination and his brilliance," Roden said of Fortson.
At Rutgers, where he is studying exercise physiology, Fortson helped create and is now the president of the Mountainview Student Organization, through which student volunteers from Princeton University and Rutgers tutor at state correctional facilities.
Prison and particularly the frequent strip searches, Fortson said, "is something I would not wish on my worst enemy." Fortson said he accepts that he broke the law and had to be punished.
But he said he also felt lucky to get the chance to rehabilitate himself once he was out on parole, and now wants to help other young people in prison find the same opportunities.
(Editing By Barbara Goldberg and Greg McCune)