WAUPUN — Four years ago, people who are incarcerated in Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities had the opportunity to enroll in a liberal arts program through Trinity International University. On Tuesday, 20 of those students became the first to ever graduate with a bachelor's degree in a Wisconsin DOC-sponsored program at Waupun Correction Facility.
Each graduate received a degree in Biblical studies with a minor in psychology.
"They have worked extremely hard to get to this day. To engage in something that has been transformational not only for them individually, but for us as an agency as whole," said DOC Secretary Kevin Carr.
In order to get into the program, students had to have at least a high school equivalency diploma. They were required to complete the same courses at the same level as any student enrolled in the bachelor's program. Classes included psychology, math, English, Bible and ministry, health science and more. All 20 graduates at Waupun graduated with honors.
August White was one of the graduates and the class speaker. In his speech, White said:
"We are not just criminals, we are not just another number or statistic, we are not just our worst mistakes. We are not just our failures and faults, we are not just people who can be abandoned and forgotten, we are not just voices that can be ignored. We are brothers, sons, uncles and fathers. We are people who are loved and who love, we are people who are cared about and who care about others. We are people who seek forgiveness, we are people who learn from their mistakes. We are people whose lives have purpose, we are valuable, appreciated, of worth, we are resilient and unbreakable. We are smart, successful and hardworking. We are voices that matter and that must be heard. We are every thing they say we are but so much more. And after today we will be able to say we are college graduates."
Like many college graduates, White will tell you the work to get to graduation day was "brutal."
"I understand the late nights people be doing in college, all the coffee. I understand it clearly now. Because you got to put in a lot of work to get to this point. It's every day, every assignment, every lecture," White said.
But attaining a bachelor's degree is something he knew he wanted to do as soon as the opportunity became available to him.
"I knew I had to take advantage of it. It was either that or sit around and work some other job," White said.
Now, he and the other graduates will be able to serve as field mentors at Waupun or another facility, to help guide and counsel other incarcerated people.
"With this I can not only better myself, but be better for others that I encounter in case they are going through some type of tragedy or some type of negative circumstance," White said about how he plans to use his degree. "With this, Trinity has allowed me to get these tools that are essential for helping others as they do time."
He also hopes to encourage others to follow in his footsteps.
"Approach people like me that are incarcerated at a young age. Let them know, 'hey you can do this with your time, you don't have to just sit back and do nothing,'" White said.
Secretary Carr hopes this first class of graduates has an impact on others throughout DOC facilities.
"Their impact will reverberate and magnify as they come in contact with people in custody and in our care. They set an example for conduct and change," Carr said.
Over 50 other students are currently enrolled in the four-year bachelor program, and the DOC also has an associates degree program already set up.
Carr said he hopes to continue to expand educational opportunities for people incarcerated in Wisconsin, and has been in talks with the UW Systems about potential programs.