Northwestern Prison Education Program students become first incarcerated students to graduate from top 10 university
16 students at Stateville Correctional Center earn bachelor's degrees
EVANSTON, Ill. — Students from the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP) made history as they received their bachelor’s degrees from inside Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois.
This is the first time in U.S. history that incarcerated students have been conferred a bachelor’s degree from a top 10 university.
On Wednesday, Nov. 15, nearly 300 guests — including fellow NPEP students, Northwestern faculty and staff, and students’ friends and family — were in attendance to witness the graduates walk across the stage and receive their diplomas from Northwestern University Provost Kathleen Hagerty.
“At Northwestern, we believe in transformation,” Hagerty said to the graduating class. “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 founding director of NPEP and the Wayne and Elizabeth Jones Professor of Philosophy and professor of law (courtesy) at Northwestern, addressed each graduate and reflected on the impact this cohort of students will have on the future of the program and the university.
“It is often said that education is transformative. And I believe this even more wholeheartedly with each passing day in our community,” Lackey said. “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.”
Award-winning author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates addressed the graduating class as the program’s commencement speaker. In his speech, Coates described his tumultuous relationship with education in his youth and the connection he felt with NPEP students.
“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 commended the accomplishments of many of the graduates, including a student who battled stage four prostate cancer and wrote a novel; a student who has helped successfully exonerate several incarcerated individuals; and a student who became the first incarcerated individual in the state of Illinois to take 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.
Since 2018, NPEP has partnered with Oakton College and the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) to deliver credit-bearing courses to incarcerated students. In January 2022, Northwestern admitted the inaugural class of NPEP students — the same students who graduated on Wednesday.
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker sent a video message to the graduates, congratulating the class for defying the “assumption and stereotypes that have been heaped upon you.”
In her in-person address, Illinois Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton lauded the graduates for their achievement and highlighted the impact prison education programs can have on society.
“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 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.”
The graduates will remain a part of NPEP as teaching assistants and fellows, helping to support approximately 60 students at Stateville Correctional Center who are pursuing their bachelor’s degrees. At Logan Correctional Center, a multi-level security state facility for women located in Lincoln, Illinois, approximately 20 NPEP students are pursuing their bachelor’s degrees.
“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.”