As a father and former felon, the cards seemed to be stacked against Jason Fronczek ’16. He spent four years and three months in prison — a sentence that could have spelled doom for his future. However, he kept his focus on his goals: to get a college degree, start his own photography company and spend time with his family.
“From the start, I had set my mind about what I was going to do after my release to ensure success,” he says. “I just kept my nose down and into books. I studied, I read, I wrote, and I planned for the future. I knew there would be a time after my release where I had a choice to make: I could choose to resent my situation and become bitter, or I could embrace what had happened and grow from it.”
Fronczek chose the latter. With hard work and help from UCF and Valencia College, the cards that were once stacked against him began to turn in his favor. After his release in 2010, he applied to Valencia’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program and began pursuing a Fine Arts degree.
“I am not defined by what I have done,” he says. “I am defined by where I am going — and for me, that is up.”
Striking the Right Balance
Fronczek always had a passion for photography. With funds from the Navy, he received formal training in photography and journalism but wanted a degree too. Through the DirectConnect program, Fronczek was able to transfer to UCF from Valencia and pursue not only a bachelor’s degree in Visual Arts and Emerging Media Management, but also a bachelor of fine arts in Studio Art specializing in photography. It was the big break Fronczek was looking for — but getting in was just the beginning.
Fronczek’s son was born in December 2012 as he was finishing up his first year at UCF. He admits it was hard to balance priorities between family and school.
“There were many times where I thought I was going to just fail miserably because of the struggles with family life,” he says. “But that’s where I had to step back and remind myself why I was going to school. I wanted to become the role model to my children to show them anything is possible and it doesn’t matter how hard something is. The only thing that matters is that you finish.”
And Finish He Did
After graduating from UCF in the spring of 2016, Fronczek decided to do something he never thought he would do just years before: apply to a master’s program. But at first, he was rejected.
Instead of letting the setback get to him, Fronczek found a unique opportunity with a startup magazine called ARTBORNE and worked as their lead designer and senior photographer. After gaining that on-the-job experience, he applied to UCF’s master of fine arts program again. This time, he made the cut.
“There has been a lot of work involved in getting this far, and some of it has been downright trying,” he says. “Being a father now, going through a divorce and all that comes with it. But keeping focus on where I want to go and who I want to be makes those choices easier.”
Fronczek says his professors helped him get through the coursework while juggling fatherhood and being an older student. “I found that so long as I was able to talk with them and just be honest about what I was capable of, they were willing to sit down and work through everything. I learned they are equally invested in me as I was. And if I was willing to put in the effort, they too would go the extra mile to ensure my success.”
With camera in hand and hope in his heart, Fronczek continues to press on. Now in his second year of the MFA program, he is expecting to present his thesis in the spring of 2020. And while he is still pursuing his photography goals, he has also found a new passion: working with the Florida Prison Education Project to inspire others who are going through the same struggles he once did.
“When I discovered the efforts of the Florida Prison Education Project, I knew this was something I needed to be a part of,” he says. “I feel I am in a unique position to go into the prisons and show the inmate participants what can become a reality if only you put effort into it — no matter what your past says about you.”
As for what’s next for Fronczek, his ambitions are simple: “As long as I can keep photographing and sharing my experiences — be it through art or instruction — I’ll be happy.”
The Florida Prison Education Project is a UCF initiative that offers high-quality undergraduate educations to people incarcerated in Central Florida. Learn more about how it’s helping people like Fronczek change their lives here.