Eight Lipscomb University graduates got the full commencement experience a day early on Friday, Dec. 13.
They spent the morning at the Provost’s Breakfast, being served food by their former teachers in aprons. They put on their robes and mortarboards among congratulatory friends and classmates. They solemnly marched into the auditorium and shook the hand of the university president as they received their diplomas.
But these graduates did all that not on the Lipscomb campus, but in the Tennessee Prison for Women located in Nashville. Eight residents of the prison (and one in absentia) received their associate degrees Friday before an audience of close to 200 people. They celebrated afterwards with hugs from family, a Lipscomb cake and photos with the president.
“Words cannot express my thanks for the opportunity to pay this forward,” said graduate, Erica East, of Ocala, Fla., as she received her degree, an accomplishment eight years in the making.
“My heart could just burst for the amount of love I feel for my Lipscomb family,” said Antoinette Kidder- Hill, of Williamsontown, Mass.
Lipscomb’s first associate degree earners are members of Lipscomb’s LIFE Program (Lipscomb Initiative For Education), which provides courses for college credit at the prison each semester. The university sends faculty out each Wednesday evening to the prison to teach liberal arts courses such as art history, judicial process, Christian ethics, community engagement, math, English and physics.
In addition, up to 15 of Lipscomb’s traditional students per class travel to the prison each week to take the courses along with the inmates in the prison. They get the same three hours of credit they would get on campus, but they also get a life-changing experience as they get to know the “inside students” on a very personal level.
“One of the things that tends to happen in our criminal justice system is that the inmates become dehumanized,” said Richard Goode, professor of history at Lipscomb and founder of the LIFE Program. “We never see the inmates, so we develop certain perceptions about them, most of which are false.
“When we all get in a room together, it humanizes the situation,” he said. “The campus students begin to realize we aren’t all that different, and the women at the prison are eager for human contact and interesting conversation. With multiple perspectives, we are all challenged.”
The nine women receiving their degrees began their studies in January 2007, the first semester of the LIFE Program, and have taken a class each semester, as well as extracurricular activities along the way such as creating a literary journal and producing a play based on their personal life journeys.
The original LIFE cohort started with 15 women but dwindled to nine graduates as many of the women had been paroled or transferred to other prisons. Several paroled LIFE students have gone on to take additional courses on the Lipscomb campus and the recidivism rate for those released is close to zero, said Goode. The next cohort of students should earn their associate degrees in two years.
LIFE participants are selected by the Tennessee Department of Correction and must have a two-year record of good behavior and a high school diploma or GED. Two additional cohorts, totally 29 women, have been added over the years, and as women are released, other participants are added, allowing the LIFE Program to touch the lives of more than 50 women since its establishment.
In addition to enhancing the lives of those released, the women with long-term sentences have become models and mentors for the other women in the prison, Goode said. In her comments at graduation, Donna McCoy, who will likely not be leaving prison, said she will always “seek means to regift all that you have given me.”
“What Lipscomb has brought about is what is talked about in the scriptures,” said McCoy of Atlanta, Ga. “We are one body with a lot of members. We are each members with one Spirit.”
More than 150 traditional students have enrolled in LIFE courses taught at the prison, and many have reported changing their career or humanitarian goals after attending classes with the LIFE women, Goode said.
The tears flowed in the audience, which included the other LIFE participants and traditional Lipscomb students, faculty, staff and board members, as each graduate shared a few words of thanks upon receiving their degree.
“Thank you to the Lipscomb faculty for believing in me when I did not believe in myself,” said Markeisha Seagraves of Nashville.
The LIFE Program is one of only a handful of programs in the U.S. to offer a college degree to prison inmates. Program coordinators are currently working toward offering a bachelor’s degree option to the students at the Tennessee Prison for Women.
The LIFE Program also holds college classes for credit for formerly homeless men at the Room in the Inn campus and at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, although traditional Lipscomb students do not attend courses at Riverbend. The LIFE Program also partnered with the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative to offer an English composition course at Charles B. Bass Correctional Complex this past semester.