Photo by Sangga Rima Roman Selia on Unsplash.

Earning a bachelor’s degree in prison was profoundly rewarding, but I never expected graduation to be so anticlimactic. 

I began my journey in higher education years before some terrible choices landed me in prison. But I had quit school in favor of running a business and being a father to my three kids. 

When I found myself with nothing but time on my hands in prison, I knew that finally earning my degree would be a wise use of time.

First, this involved finding a college that still offered courses by correspondence. Only a few institutions still exist that offer such degrees, so my choices were limited. 

The next step was to find funding for classes and books. Pell grants excluded prisoners at the time, so I had to find another way to pay. A college education is expensive for anyone, but it is prohibitively expensive for prisoners earning nothing but pennies a day. I needed a sponsor for my education.

Locating scholarships and grants is a herculean task for prisoners. After numerous unsuccessful applications, I opted to write to friends, family members and strangers to ask for help. 

It was slow-going, frustrating and often unsuccessful, but I eventually got enough money for several classes. At this rate, I knew it would take me longer than the 10 years I still had in prison to complete my bachelor’s degree. 

That’s when an unprecedented opportunity presented itself — a spot in the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI), a bachelor’s degree program collaboratively offered by Calvin College (now Calvin University) and Calvin Theological Seminary. The five-year program offered a B.A. in faith and community leadership with a minor in social work. It wasn’t the business degree I wanted, but at least CPI was aligned with my Christian faith and included a full scholarship.

While many prisoners might jump at such an opportunity, I carefully considered what it would mean for me. I would not be able to transfer the 50-plus credits I had earned so far, I’d have to transfer to a notoriously bad prison, and the degree offered was not my preference. Still, the opportunity was too good to pass up, so I sent in my application.

A short while later, I found out I was accepted. 

At the time, the prison where I was transferred for the program was undergoing a transformation from a “gladiator school” to an education prison. The warden was a visionary who saw education as necessary to a prisoner’s transformation. 

I arrived a couple months before classes started, joining 19 other men who had been accepted into CPI’s second cohort. This gave the members of my cohort the chance to settle in, get to know each other a little and pepper the first cohort members with questions.

When classes started, professors from the university came to prison to teach our weekly classes. They treated us like regular college students — and more importantly, like human beings. 

I remember feeling overwhelmed by the feelings our interactions stirred up in me. Despite the prison system stripping us prisoners of all self-worth — all inherent dignity — the professors and college administrative staff reinforced the message that we were valued. We were taught that we possessed inherent dignity because we were made in God’s image.

Our cohort worked well together. College professors stressed to us the importance of community, and we students began to form bonds with each other that are unusual in prison. Despite my preference for individual learning, I came to enjoy learning in a group. 

The professors also reinforced the notion that every one of us could discover what we were meant to do with our lives.

I had always been a decent writer — but in college, I discovered a love for it, and cultivated my skills throughout the five-year program. I also discovered a love for teaching others how to write well, and spent most of those five years helping my fellow students become better writers. They taught me as well. I learned as much about myself as I did about philosophy, theology, sociology and the other subjects we studied.

In our last year, the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States.

I completed my last semester in college just as I had started years before — through correspondence. CPI was fortunate to have laptop computers for each student and a method for professors to send us recorded video lectures. The professors also sent assignments electronically, and we completed and returned them electronically.

The first cohort’s graduation ceremony had been canceled due to the pandemic, and as our cohort’s graduation neared, we realized our graduation ceremony would also be canceled. 

For five years I had fought hard to maintain a 4.0 grade point average, and I had looked forward to my mother and brother watching me receive my diploma. I pictured the event hundreds of times, imagining the experience of making my family proud.

The pandemic changed all of that. 

I still consider it a profound accomplishment to have earned a bachelor’s degree in prison, but I missed the fanfare of a graduation ceremony. It felt anticlimactic to have my degree handed to me with a hearty congratulations by university staff instead of accepting it at a ceremony attended by my family.

Today, I’m a proud bachelor’s degree holder, and although the pandemic stole our graduation, it couldn’t steal all I gained through my five-year education journey.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Bryan Noonan

Bryan Noonan is a writer and blogs about prison on his Hope On the Inside site. He also co-authored “Insider’s Guide to Prison Life,” a book that seeks to demystify prison and build stronger relationships between prisoners and their loved ones. He is incarcerated in Michigan.