Incarcerated Students Make History, Earn Northwestern Bachelor’s Degrees

Photos: Northwestern University

Incarcerated students earned their bachelor’s degree from a top 10 university for the first time in U.S. history. 

Through Northwestern University’s Northwestern Prison Education Program, 16 students from the Stateville Correctional Center were conferred degrees in front of nearly 300 attendees, including friends and family, Northwestern faculty and fellow Northwestern Prison Education Program students last week.

Everyone in attendance witnessed these students participate in the age-old ritual of walking across the stage to receive their diplomas, handed out by Northwestern University Provost Kathleen Hagerty. 

“At Northwestern, we believe in transformation,” Hagerty told the graduates. “In fact, one of our guiding principles is ‘We transform society.’ And that’s not an easy thing to do. All of our graduates here today can attest to the hard work it takes to make a positive change. I congratulate and commend all our graduates for harnessing the power of education to make positive changes in your lives and to be able to share what you’ve learned with your communities.”

Jennifer Lackey, the Wayne and Elizabeth Jones Professor of Philosophy and a professor of law (courtesy) at Northwestern University, who also serves as the founding director of NPEP,  addressed each graduate and elaborated on the profound influence these students had on the future trajectory of the program and Northwestern University.

Lackey added, “It is often said that education is transformative. And I believe this even more wholeheartedly with each passing day in our community.” 

“But I have also been powerfully moved by the way you all have transformed education. You have radically expanded what it means to be a Northwestern student. You have enriched Northwestern University in ways that will echo for decades to come,” she said.

What the students achieved inspired award-winning journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, the program’s first bachelor’s degree commencement speaker.

“When I got the invitation to come here to address you, wild horses couldn’t stop me because I’m addressing myself,” Coates said. “This is a tremendous achievement you guys have done.” 

Coates also lauded the achievements of numerous graduates, highlighting the inspiring journey of a student who courageously confronted stage four prostate cancer while penning a novel. Additionally, he praised another graduate who played a pivotal role in the successful exoneration of several incarcerated individuals and commended a student who made history as the first incarcerated individual in Illinois to undertake the LSAT.

“I think I can safely say that I will never in my life address a class that’s as decorated as this,” Coates said.  

Gov. J.B. Pritzker congratulated the students in a video, commending them for defying the “assumption and stereotypes that have been heaped upon you.” 

In her live address to the graduating class, Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton praised the students for their accomplishments and underscored the societal impact of prison education programs.

“This graduation is a significant step forward for higher education within the criminal legal system and we must do more. All people, regardless of their circumstances, deserve access to education and to realize their full potential,” said Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton. “The Northwestern Prison Education Program is a testament to how the power of education can truly transform lives and provide hope for a better future, both within and outside prison walls.” 

Since 2018, NPEP has collaborated with Oakton College and the Illinois Department of Corrections to provide credit-bearing courses to incarcerated students. In January 2022, Northwestern welcomed the inaugural class of NPEP students who graduated successfully. 

These graduates will continue their involvement with NPEP, taking on roles as teaching assistants and fellows. They will play a crucial role in supporting around 60 Stateville Correctional Center students working towards their bachelor’s degrees. Additionally, at Logan Correctional Center, a multi-level security state facility for women in Lincoln, Illinois, approximately 20 NPEP students are actively pursuing their bachelor’s.

“Your success bears testament to the transformative power of education and demonstrates that this is an investment worth making,” said Latoya Hughes, acting director of the Illinois Department of Corrections. As you join the ranks of the same college graduates who came before you, I hope that this milestone is only one of many of the investments you make in yourself, your families, and your communities.”

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