YC Student-Inmates Say Thanks
Three miles from the brick streets and historic buildings of the campus on the hill, there live a group York College students who attend classes in a chapel behind 20-foot fences topped with razor wire. These women are working to change the trajectory of their lives, and their attitudes about their studies reflect the value of the education they are engaged in. They are inmates at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women (NCCW) and members of the first cohort of the Second Chance Education Program at York College. In August 2019, these 11 women will earn what for some of them was previously unimaginable--a college degree.
That gratitude was evident in the recent Teacher Appreciation Day at NCCW. The emotional event was organized by student Jennifer Kerby, who also served as master of ceremonies. “I once was lost, but God has given me a second chance,” Kerby told the audience of York College faculty and staff, as well as NCCW staff and other students in the cohort. “I’m going to honor you for being a part of that,” she said, thanking the faculty for giving her and classmates the tools to grow. “You teach us faith and give me hope for my future...You are my amazing grace.”
She invited Dr. Clark Roush, endowed chair for the performing arts at York College, to sing Amazing Grace. On the final chorus, Kerby invited everyone to join in. As Roush’s booming baritone swelled, many in the room were wiping away tears.
Roush had previously taught the cohort’s Music Appreciation class and was a clear favorite of the student-inmates. In thanking him, one student told Roush, “I listen to classical music now, and I like it!”
The admiration was mutual. “You have been an amazing grace in my own life, in my own heart,” Roush told the students. “You have changed the way that I think about things. You’ve changed my life...and I came out here expecting it to be the other way around.”
Roush also gave them a challenge. “What you have been given, it’s now your turn to give to others.”
Latoya Ross thanked the faculty members for always making the NCCW students feel just like they were traditional on-campus YC students. “The only difference is they never have to tell us to turn off our cell phones,” she joked, as they are not allowed to have them. Another key difference? “We show up hungry for knowledge,” said Ross.
Dr. Shane Mountjoy, provost, concurred. “My faculty are asking to come out here to teach. They’ve heard so many good things about you,” he told the students.
Mountjoy praised the students for their generosity: a recent Christmas project they took on provided backpacks full of supplies for families in need. “You are women of virtue,” he said.
Mountjoy told the students he is already making plans for a real graduation ceremony at the prison when they’ve completed the program. “We are so proud of you and what you are accomplishing,” he said.
The Second Chance Education Program offers 12 students per cohort the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree through four years of part-time study. The next cohort of students will begin studies in the fall of 2019. Currently the program is underwritten by donors so that the students’ costs are reduced. York College is seeking grant funding to continue the program.
One student commented that Dr. Terry Seufferlein’s Bible class has inspired her to continue her studies and earn a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies. Others echoed her sentiments, saying that they too will pursue a bachelor’s degree once they’ve completed this program.
Dr. Seufferlein received special recognition as the initiator of the Second Chance Education Program. After a standing ovation from his students, he responded, “I think I speak for all of the faculty when I say coming here is the highlight of our day. It is a joy to teach students who are so eager and ready to learn.”
The York College initiative was the start of a lot of new programs at the prison, said student Angela Manns. “I’m so thankful for Dr. Seufferlein pushing for this for us,” she said. “We have so many more opportunities now.” When she is released in a few years, Manns hopes to start a business building and selling tiny houses or possibly work in the corrections system, bringing her personal experience and knowledge to the field.
“In the last two years, I’ve seen a shift in our ladies. It’s hope. Each of us is now looking forward to life outside these gates,” said Manns.
They are spreading that hope to other inmates at NCCW. “Because of our interaction with our teachers, we are encouraging others to do this program,” she said.
“I never thought I’d be able to do college,” said student Elisa Seastrong. “But with the help of the teachers and the other students in the program...I think I’m going to make it.” After completing her York College studies, Seastrong hopes to complete a culinary program and work in food service. She recalled her hardest class, Basic Speech taught by John Baker, associate professor of communication. “At the beginning I thought, ‘there’s no way I can do that!’” But by the end of the class, she had found her voice. Now public speaking doesn’t scare her at all.
For some of the students, college previously seemed like a thing that other people did, but not them. It is a challenge to overcome their personal narratives of failure and dare to reach for success. Jennifer Gillpatrick said that at the beginning of each class, anxiety overwhelms her. Plagued by low self-esteem, she perpetually doubts she will be able to complete the next course. Then she meets with the faculty member for the first class session and discovers that their belief in her gives her the confidence to keep moving forward. “You take that stress block right off my back and help me to feel comfortable,” she told them.
Kerby will be leaving on work-release this spring. While she won’t be able to complete the program at NCCW with the rest of the cohort, this is not the end of her educational journey. She is planning to continue her studies at York College on the main campus as soon as she is able and may seek employment there as well. When her studies are complete, she hopes to do search and rescue work or ministry. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without York College and these people who really want to make a difference for us,” she said.
Kerby encouraged her classmates to keep on striving and achieving academically. She also encouraged the York College faculty and staff. “Don’t give up on us. Don’t give up on this program, because it’s changing our lives and changing our futures.”
Bridgette Mann-Welch is hoping to be granted work release soon after completing the York College program, at which point she will continue working toward a bachelor’s degree and her dream of working in healthcare. “I didn’t think I could do it when I first signed up,” she said. “It’s been a long, hard journey. We’ve come a long way.”
Mann-Welch said a main challenge for the students is having enough time in the prison library and resource center to complete homework. She is thankful for the cooperation from NCCW staff who are flexible with the students’ schedules to make sure they are able to get their work done. With limited access to the internet, sometimes faculty members have to go above and beyond to provide resources for the women. “It’s insane how much they do for us,” she said.
The students study together as much as they are able, quizzing each other while they work. “We pull each other through it,” Mann-Welch said, noting that often their assignments are completed early because they are so motivated to not let this opportunity pass them by.
Angela Manns agreed. “I’m determined to finish the program with a 4.0,” she said with a grin. Manns mentioned a recent article she had seen about York College alumni giving during the Beyond 125 Campaign. “I got excited thinking, someday that’s going to be me. I’m going to be an alumni and I’m going to give back,” she said.
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