Ten women, holding tight to their caps, walked through the sunny yet windy prison yard where the energy and excitement were palpable. The graduates in their newly dawned regalia with smiles from ear-to-ear, paraded down the sidewalk with fellow inmates on either side cheering them on with high fives and signs of congratulations. The short but meaningful walk led them to the chapel full of proud faculty, administration, family and visitors awaiting the arrival of the class of York University graduates.
On May 1, the commencement ceremony marked the second class of students to complete the Second Chance Educational Program, a partnership between YU and the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women (NCCW). The program offers women who are incarcerated, some for a few years – some for a lifetime, the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree through four years of part-time study.
“We just kept getting the radio call, ‘They’re ready. They’re ready,’” opened Angela Folts-Oberle, Warden of NCCW as she addressed the graduates thanking them for their patience on the long-anticipated day.
“I’m pretty lucky to be a part of this day where we celebrate the hard work and dedication of these ten graduates,” Folts-Oberle went on. She expressed her appreciation for the partnership between the prison and the university and noted that programs like these were rare. “Education is a key component to success for these individuals. We all must continue to learn no matter where we are on our journey. Education extends well beyond what we learn in books and it makes dreams come true.”
Professor Terry Seufferlein, program director and professor of Bible, reminded the graduates of four key lessons they learned in their most recent course. Focusing on the importance of their story, “You can’t control your story,” began Seufferlein. “All you can control is your reaction and your choices in the story.”
He continued by saying, “You have to own your story. When a person finds herself in a bad story what does she do? She picks up the pen and writes a new chapter. She changes the story, and tells a better story. Because if you don’t take ownership of your story someone else will. Part of getting an education and a degree is taking ownership.”
“The third lesson is, the point of the story is not the ending. What is the point of the story?” he asked. “The journey”, the students answered confidently. “So now you have a college degree, but that degree doesn’t make you a better person. What you had to do to get that degree, the work, the effort, the time you struggled together that molded and shaped you to become a better person.” Seufferlein said.
While holding back tears, he concluded by recognizing that there are certain stories we can’t write alone. “Several years ago this was just a dream of mine, and now you’re a part of my story and I’m honored to be a part of yours. When we work together we write a better story.”
Several graduates were given an opportunity to share their thoughts on this momentous occasion.
Chelsey Cook, introduced as the youngest of the group, began with a quote from Maya Angelou, “You may not control all the events that happen to you but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” Cook shared how she and her fellow classmates persevered through life’s struggles to get to this point. “I’m very grateful to have this gift to shift my family’s paradigm,” she said. “We have not let our past define us, not even being formerly known as our worst mistake. Today, we will be known as York University graduates.” The entire audience erupted in cheers and applause.
She went on to talk about how she had originally started the program for her parents, wanting to make them proud. She said her “why” kept her going even when it was hard. “But today, I can say I did it for myself too,” said Chelsey. “I have proved myself. I am proud of myself. Nothing has stopped me from getting this degree. Today, I’m known as a child of God, a preacher’s kid, a mother, a great friend, a survivor and a YU graduate.”
One of the most powerful stories was shared by Jo Helen Robertson-Williams who said she found herself in the presence of a judge at just 8 years old. “I don’t remember everything he said but I remember one word. He said I was incorrigible,” said Jo Helen. “I was a bad kid but I was also studious so I looked it up. Incorrigible is defined as ‘having a bad habit that cannot be changed.’ Imagine an 8-year-old little girl being told by an authority that she couldn’t change. I bought in, I lived it and my family suffered through it.”
She described how the Second Chance program helped her realize her true worth. “They saw me and not my circumstances. They saw purpose where I saw pity. They saw value where I saw trash. We see who we are right now and this is who we were meant to be. We now realize our personal value and understand how we can enrich and uplift everyone we come in contact with.”
She added her gratitude for forward-thinking people willing to step outside of the box to provide an education to women who most would deem unworthy. “I don’t know where that judge is now or what happened to him. At this point, I don’t care, because he didn’t see today. Almost four years ago I didn’t see today. No matter the labels that society uses to define us, after today they’re going to have to add “college graduate” to that.”
The last graduate to speak was Kimberly Faust also expressing her gratitude for the program, focusing her attention on the professors. “The professors poured into us in such an incredible way, not only as a group but individually. They gave not only the gift of education but the gift of hope, grace and compassion and the true gift of a second chance. They cared about us and nurtured us. They knew what we were capable of before we ever did,” said Kimberly.
“Each professor gave us a clear picture of how to view ourselves and others through the eyes of Christ,” said Kimberly. “Romans 12 says love should be sincere and to honor one another above ourselves. We saw that in every professor we had.”
She shared how her friend, Niccole, a YU graduate of the first cohort, encouraged her to join the program and challenged her to earn all A’s as she once did. “Challenge Accepted,” laughed Kimberly who completed the program with a 4.0 g.p.a.
Kimberly spoke of not knowing she would be a ‘freshman’ in her fifties and shared how her late parents always dreamed that she would earn a college degree. “Unfortunately I was unable to fulfill their dream while they were still here but I know that today they’re looking down on me smiling knowing that I finally achieved that goal. And I achieved that goal the same year my son graduates as well,” she shared with a teary smile.
“In May of 2001, I was sentenced here, but now York University has given me a new memory for May 1st. The most incredible thing about learning through York University is that it is not only an educational experience but it is a spiritual one too. We will always be honored to be graduates of a Christ-centered university.” She closed with a quote from Michelle Obama, “You are practicing now who you are becoming.”
Five of the first cohort graduates from 2019 were able to be in attendance. The alumni included Jennifer (Kerby) Dabbs, Tamara Kulm, Seeletter Livingston, Bridgette Mann and Latoya Nicole Ross. Jennifer, who also works part-time for the Second Chance program, graduated two days prior with a master's in global and organizational leadership from YU.
Sarah Cullen, Brittany Two Two-White Eyes and Jocelyn M. Nordin were also given the opportunity to share their gratitude and quickly thanked each of the professors and volunteers. Sarah shared, “I’ve been forever changed by my time with each of you. Your impact reached far beyond the classes that you taught us. We would like to express our appreciation to all the professors who selflessly and intentionally chose to come out here and pour into us. York University and each of you hold a special place with us. We thank God for this opportunity and all the people He uses in our lives.”
At the conclusion of the speeches, Professor Terry Seufferlein called each student to the front to receive their diploma from President Smith. Each graduate held tightly to the blue folder representing hope and a better future.
The celebration continued after the ceremony with a reception but not before many hugs and congratulations from family and visitors, several who had traveled long distances to join the graduates on their special day. The sweet reunions of families and friends, professors and students, topped the afternoon off perfectly.
This chapter may be over, but it definitely isn’t the end of the story for the YU class of 2023: Chelsey Cook, Sarah A. Cullen, Kimberly S. Faust*, Shavontae K. Green, Lora Lee McKinney*, Jocelyn M. Nordin, Brittney Pryce, Jessica Reid, Brittany Two Two-White Eyes, and Jo Helen Robertson-Williams.
*Graduating with a 4.0