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Students awarded degrees in unique ceremony behind prison walls

Education transforms lives even in the most unexpected places.

Kim Chaudoin  | 

Graduates wearing graduation robes over prison blues.

Graduates prepare for the commencement processional Dec. 12 inside the Tennessee Prison for Women.

The day began like most graduation days with a provost’s breakfast where faculty served soon-to-be Lipscomb graduates. Students talked excitedly with their professors. Photos were taken.
 
Families gathered … some taking their seats two hours before the ceremony was to begin to make sure they got the best seats. In another location, those participating in commencement put on their academic regalia and graduates donned their caps and gowns nervously trying to get the tassel in the correct position.
 
Commencement began with a processional led by bagpipes followed by faculty and those who would be walking across the stage to collect their diplomas signifying the earning of a college degree. The crowd clapped and cheered as each graduate’s name was read and they shook hands with Lipscomb University president L. Randolph Lowry and board chair David Solomon and paused for a photo before returning to their seats.
 
Only this wasn’t your typical graduation.
 
This one took place behind the walls of the Tennessee Prison for Women.

Graduates holding diplomas

On Thursday, Dec. 12, Lipscomb University held its fourth graduation ceremony in seven years at TPW. During the ceremony five women who are residents at the prison were awarded college degrees they earned as part of Lipscomb University's LIFE program — The Lipscomb Initiative for Education. On this day, three women graduated with Bachelor of Professional Studies degrees and two with Associate of Arts degrees. Their academic achievements were celebrated in a ceremony that is a replica of what took place on the university campus 48 hours later on Saturday, Dec. 15, during which more than 500 "outside" students received undergraduate, graduate or doctoral degrees.
 
This culminates nearly a decade of study and work for the women, many of whom will never be released from prison. These “inside students” have received face-to-face instruction from university professors and have studied side-by-side traditional Lipscomb undergraduate students — or “outside” students — on-site at the prison each Wednesday night for about the last 10 years through the Lipscomb LIFE program. Both the "inside" students and the "outside" students earn college credit for these courses.
 
“The fact that these women have completed ten years of education without the internet and with limited resources is almost supernatural,” said Kate Watkins, executive director of the Lipscomb LIFE program. “They bring to class more than you ask of them. It’s inspiring to know that they have taken this so seriously and they’ve been such great stewards of this opportunity.”
 
To earn the Associate of Arts Degree, the TPW residents had to earn 63 credit hours, following the Tennessee Board of Regents’ general education requirement. To earn the Bachelor of Professional Studies degree, students had to earn 126 credit hours. Graduates also earned some college credit through the Lipscomb competency-based education program’s behavioral assessment, which awards college credit for prior learning and life experience. Class subjects have included judicial process, art history, ethics, negotiation, literature, theater, public speaking and math, among other subjects. Since the program launched, students have compiled three literary journals and have held a theatrical production in the prison as well.
 
Gloria Fisher
, warden at the Tennessee Prison for Women, began the ceremony by welcoming guests.
 
“To see the payoff for the hard work put forth by our students is inspiring,” said Fisher. “Our partnership with Lipscomb University is one of the most valuable community collaborations we have because we know if will have a lasting impact on the lives of our students.”

Stage during graduation ceremony

Five women received their Lipscomb degrees during a special ceremony inside the Tennessee Prison for Women Dec. 12.

At the ceremony Leonard Allen, dean of Lipscomb’s College of Bible & Ministry shared a charge with the students and shared with them a story of two mountains.
 
“After being thrown into a valley after a mountain in our lives hurtles us into a valley and into a time in the wilderness, you can start to see the second mountain,” said Allen. “As we begin to climb that second mountain it’s the place we begin to discover our truer selves … the one who has been through the fires and is being refined.”

“Through years of disciplined study you I imagine you have found yourselves new and transformed and that you can see new horizons and pathways. Something has been resurrected inside of you,” he continued. “Stay on this journey. You have been given much and you now have much to give.”
 
As part of the ceremony, graduates select one faculty member to receive the Outstanding Teacher Award. Richard Goode, professor of history, politics and philosophy and LIFE program founder, was named this year’s recipient. “He provided a consistent role model and that’s something that many of us never had before,” said Tonya, one of the graduates, when making the presentation. “To us he is a professor, mentor, community, family and friend. You are the face of Agnus Dei.”

“Today I deserve to stand here. I’ve worked hard to be here. Thank you, Lipscomb University, for bringing me community. You are family. — Joan, 2019 graduate

The president’s charge is a traditional part of Lipscomb commencement and in his remarks to the graduates, Lowry challenged the women to do what they can to improve the world around them.
 
“Where ever our ‘world’ might be,” he said, “we need not wait a single moment to do what we can to improve it. As a college graduate you now have more with which to improve your relationships and your world. No one can take away the learning you’ve done and the discipline you’ve developed. No one can deprive you of the pride you feel today. Regardless of your circumstances, all of those things will always be yours, and you will always be part of the Lipscomb community.”
 
As graduates received their diplomas each had an opportunity to share a few thoughts.
 
“Today I deserve to stand here,” said Joan, who received a Bachelor of Professional Studies degree at the ceremony. “I’ve worked hard to be here. Thank you, Lipscomb University, for bringing me community. You are family.”
 
“God kept placing in my heart new beginnings,” said Melissa, who also received a Bachelor of Professional Studies degree, to the graduates and other LIFE students attending the ceremony. “I remember when I started the program in January 2010 I thought I would fail. I encourage you today to believe in yourself. When God closes a door He opens another. Take this Lipscomb community and let it blossom you into a strong woman. You can become a person you never thought you could be. You get an education, but you also get so much more. Thank you, Lipscomb, for all that you have poured into me all of these years. You have made me a strong woman of God.”

Graduates in prison blues with graduation robes covering them.

ReAsha, the third student to receive a bachelor’s degree, said she is “forever grateful for the LIFE program for instilling in me values I never knew I had and for an education. I know being in there was a labor of love when no one else was. I know the faculty sacrificed a great deal to be here with us. I challenge everyone to think about how far you are willing to stretch yourself to see how far you can go in life.”
 
Brenda, who worked toward her Associate of Arts degree for seven years dropped out of high school and gave up on her dream of becoming an architect.
 
“Everyone at Lipscomb has been a big encouragement to me,” she said. “You encouraged me to hang in there and I am here today. It takes someone taking a chance and believing in you. Thank you for your encouragement and support.”
 
Tonya, who also earned her associate degree, also lost sight of her dreams. “I, too, have watched as my life faded and the ghosts of what might have been haunted me,” she said. “This is a living testament to second chances. To my Lipscomb family, you brought me redemption in the form of ruin. Those endless days of emptiness are over. I have much gratitude to those who brought life into my being. Thank you for not only teaching me, but showing me what a true gift really is.”

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee also attended graduation and shared remarks with the graduates. He said he looked forward to being a part of the ceremony for quite a while, and acknowledged the challenging journey they have been on to complete a college degree. Lee told the graduates that he likes to think that God is writing a “book” about every person’s life.

Tennessee governor Bill Lee speaks at graduation ceremony

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee addressed graduates at the ceremony inside the Tennessee Prison for Women.

“There is a library of books being written about every one of our lives,” Lee told the graduates. “They are part of God’s library. Your book is very important. If it were missing, the library would be incomplete. In your book, some days there is just a line written. On other days pages are written. Despite the previous chapters already written in our books, there are many more to be written … and those chapters determine the ending.”
 
“Some books when you read them change your life forever,” he continued, “and I suspect the book being written about your life will change someone else’s life. Standing here today gives me much hope.”
 
The Lipscomb bachelor’s degree is the only four-year college degree in Tennessee, and one of the few in the nation, offered to prison residents. Lipscomb also offers a master’s degree program for women at TPW.
 
“LIFE students at TPW develop better self-confidence, expanded life experience and good study habits. In fact, Lipscomb’s traditional students are afforded an eye-opening experience to get to know and befriend the inmates, an encounter that many students say has affected their life choices well after completing the class,” said Watkins.
 
Since the inception of the LIFE program in 2007, 10 TPW residents have earned bachelor’s degrees and 19 have earned Associate of Arts degrees through the program. These graduates are part the fourth cohort to graduate through this program. Today, there are approximately 40 prison residents who are taking classes through the Lipscomb LIFE program. Today, the LIFE Program is one of only a handful of programs in the U.S. to offer a college degree to prison inmates. LIFE Participants, selected by the Tennessee Department of Correction, must have a two-year record of good behavior and a high school diploma or GED in order to participate in the program. As a result of a recently awarded one-year grant from the state of Tennessee, LIFE has the opportunity to double the size of the program in 2020. This gift allows LIFE to also enter into the local men's prison, Riverbend Maximum Security Prison, to begin offering classes.
 

View media coverage of the ceremony

Five inmates receive their college degrees behind bars (NewsChannel5 - CBS)

Not Your Typical Graduation (WSMV - NBC)

Learn more about the Lipscomb LIFE program. 
 

— Photos by Kristi Jones