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 on Wednesday, Nov. 15.
This is the first time in U.S. history that incarcerated students have been conferred a bachelor’s degree from a top 10 university.
From inside a theater at Stateville, past several security checkpoints and the facility’s now-closed panopticon-style cellhouse, nearly 300 guests — fellow NPEP students, Northwestern faculty and staff, students’ friends and family, and law makers — gathered to witness the graduates walk across the stage and receive their diplomas from Northwestern University Provost Kathleen Hagerty.
Award-winning author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of “Between the World and Me,” which won the National Book Award in 2015, 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. “I don’t know you, but I know you. I don’t know you, but I love you.”
Coates commended the NPEP graduates, including James Soto, who has helped exonerate several incarcerated individuals; Bernard McKinley, who became the first incarcerated individual in the state of Illinois to take the LSAT; and Michael Broadway, a student who battled stage four prostate cancer and wrote a novel, all while taking classes.
Broadway, who has overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to graduate, was able to reconnect with his mother on graduation day — the first time in nearly two decades he has seen her in person.
Said Coates: “I think I can safely say that I will never in my life address a class that’s as decorated as this.”