Minutes later, many of that same group of visitors were escorted back outside to witness a processional like none they had ever seen. Lining both sides of the courtyard’s central walkway were NCCW residents awaiting the arrival of their very own YC Class of 2019.
As a group of twelve women donned in cap and gown made their appearance, cheers erupted and the tears started flowing. The soon-to-be graduates made their long awaited march through the crowd of well-wishers, high fives, and signs of encouragement. At the end of their procession stood the YC faculty and administration who had been part of the three and a half year journey, equally proud and overflowing with joy for the women who had achieved what years earlier was only a dream.
“Ladies, I’m proud of you! This is a monumental day!” Those words spoken by Scott Frakes, Director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, as he addressed the first NCCW graduating class, were echoed throughout the morning celebration. “They say you’re not supposed to cry in prison,” Frakes continued through the audience’s laughter, “but I think today is a good exception.” He pointed out that they had each been given the tools to be successful in the world. “Never stop learning,” Frakes said.
Each graduate was given an opportunity to share what the day meant to them. All twelve showed appreciation and gratitude for the York College faculty who had shared their lives and experiences.
Britteney Baker and Michale Dixon were not much for giving speeches but quickly mentioned their thanks before rejoining their classmates.
Jennifer Gillpatrick began with Psalm 115:1 — giving God the glory for the momentous occasion and added a passage from 2 Corinthians 4:7 ‘But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.’ She thanked YC professors for showing so much grace during the program and extended that gratitude to her classmates and family. “I can accomplish anything I put my mind to.”
“The Second Chance Program means so much to me,” said Rose Glaze as she talked about her dream of getting a college education. “I’m so grateful to be standing here. Thank you for your willingness to help us--helping us face our problems—for letting down your guards.”
“I came in as a failure eighteen years ago,” said Jennifer Kirby. “I didn’t allow myself to dream. Eighteen years later, I stand in the same spot as I failed, and have succeeded.”
Kirby, who was released a few months earlier, was allowed to return to the facility to graduate with her former classmates. She quoted Nelson Mandela: ‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.’
“Thank you York College faculty for giving me the right to feel powerful beyond belief. It’s such an honor to be up here.” Kirby will be pursuing her bachelor’s degree at York College this fall and working part-time with the Second Chance Program.
“So blessed; so thankful,” said Tamara Kulm as she described how much had changed since she was first accepted into the program. “Look at us now—all wearing the same cap and gown. I’ve learned that 12 women from 12 different worlds could come together and succeed.”
She finished with a quote from Winston Churchill: “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”
Seeletter Livingston talked about the transformation process that has occurred in her life. She began with a quote from Psalm 119:71 ‘It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.’ “When I was first accepted, I was always getting into trouble with the staff,” she said referencing how she was a York College student by day and a trouble maker at night. “I needed a power greater than me. I know that power was Jesus. It wasn’t my drive and my ambition that got me here,” she said tearfully. “How was I to know Jesus was a healer, if I hadn’t gotten sick. How was I to know Jesus was my Savior, if I hadn’t been lost. I know I’m not the person I want to be, but I am thankful I’m not the person I used to be.”
Bridgette Mann had her speech memorized and wanted to thank everyone for a chance at a new beginning, crediting God with being in her life.
Angela Manns used her love for landscaping and gardening as an illustration about turning something positive out of a negative. She described how the black gold of soils is made from “bad things” like compost being transformed into desirable things. Proud of taking this first step in her educational pursuits, she gave a word of encouragement to the administration that she wanted to continue down the path and work on her bachelor’s. “I’m already planning on my master’s degree,” she exclaimed with a smile.
The first cohort of graduates at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women pose with YC faculty and administration.
One of the most powerful testimonials given was from LaToya Ross who wasn’t convinced at first to even apply for the program. “Thank you Bridgette for making me take that test,” giving a heartfelt nod to her fellow classmate.
“There were so many things in my life I had never completed, like raising my son, being there for my family when they needed me the most,” she continued. “At that moment I had counted myself out. I only saw myself as Ross, #98730.”
She went on to give her thanks for the Second Chance Program and for the opportunities it had provided. “I will no longer count myself out. So with this being said, I would like to re-introduce myself. Hello, my name is LaToya Nicole Ross. I am a mother, a grandmother, a daughter, a sister, a granddaughter, and a friend and I’m also a York College graduate."
At that moment the chapel erupted with applause and cheers from her fellow graduates, and looking around, it might have been impossible to find a dry eye in the building.
The program also brought families together again.
Elisa Seastrong was another resident who wasn’t sure she wanted to put in the time, effort, and money to join the program but decided to go ahead with it at the encouragement of others including her case worker. When her daughter discovered through a google search that her mom was in the program, she told her mom just how important that decision was.
"The Second Chance Program not only allowed me to get my college degree but brought me closer to my family," said Elisa Seastrong.
Her daughter Tiera Austin echoed that sentiment and told a television reporter, “It was great seeing her up there; she was confident. I am proud of her.”
The last graduate to speak was Niccole Wetherall, who was awarded the Student of Excellence by her classmates earlier in the ceremony. Gillpatrick described her as, “Our go to,” referring to how she would help them with their homework assignments, even proof reading their papers.
Wetherall spoke of York College’s mission statement, how it rings true in her heart, and the transformation process that has taken place over the last three and half years. She referenced the famous quote, ‘A dream written down with a date becomes a goal. A goal broken down into steps becomes a plan. A plan backed by action makes your dreams come true.’ Wetherall concluded, “The support for each other is why we have degrees today.”
At the conclusion of the speeches, YC Provost, Dr. Shane Mountjoy, called each student to the front to receive their diploma from President Eckman. Before the dismissal prayer, Mountjoy commented, “Every time I think there’s no more tears, more come out. I’m so proud of each one of you.”
The next cohort of 12 students will begin studies this fall. To reduce students’ costs, the Second Chance Education Program is underwritten in part by private donations along with a Vocational Life Skills (VLS) grant from the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. York College seeks ongoing funding and donations for the program.