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Graduation ceremony recognizes prison inmates for academic accomplishments

More than 60 inmates were recognized during a graduation ceremony at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla.

The ceremony, held Wednesday in a gymnasium, recognized inmates who have earned high school diplomas, associate of arts degrees, general education development certifications or completed career technical education programs.

The event had many of the trappings of any other commencement, including a student speaker. Jason Lint, who earned an Associate of Arts degree with honors in social and behavioral science, talked about his many struggles with education during his lifetime, ending his speech with advice to graduates.

“Those of you who are getting your GED, high school diploma or VOC completions, relish this feeling and strive for more,” Lint said. “Education is the key of getting out and staying out. It is one gift you can give yourself that you can use for a lifetime, and no one can take it away.”

Merced Community College President Chris Vitelli urged graduates to continue their education while praising them for making the best of their situation and a better life for themselves.

“Your families, while they’re not here, they’re proud of you,” Vitelli said. “You’re being such an inspiration to those who look up to you, to those who stay in contact with you, to those who have invested their lives in you, you’re being an inspiration to them, as well.”

Three receive scholarships

Among those recognized during the ceremony were three honor students from the Sigma Delta Kappa chapter who received scholarships from the Alpha Gamma Sigma Honor Society, the first statewide AGS scholarships awarded to incarcerated students, according to a news release.

Of the three scholarship recipients, 51-year-old inmate Anthony Medina received the Randy Taylor award which recognizes the top scoring applicant in the area of outstanding service. Medina said that his community service work started when he began tutoring the person next to him who was struggling.

“I was able to also excel academically and being recognized for that has been a big accomplishment and has been ... probably one of the most validating accomplishments that I’ve ever had in my life,” he said.

Going forward, Medina said he wants to encourage other students to not only excel academically, but to look within themselves to see if they can give back in the same way.

The three honor students competed against 400 finalists throughout the state and this is the first time a Merced Community College student has received the top scholarship in the state, according to the release.

Honor students David Flores and Daniel Henson received the Kathleen D. Loly Award recognizing academic excellence.

English turnaround

Henson, 37, praised his English teacher, Jennifer McBride from Merced College.

MER_AKValleyStatePrisonGrad (3)
Inmate Daniel Henson, 37, left, shakes hands with Merced College professor Jennifer McBride after being recognized for receiving the Alpha Gamma Sigma Kathleen D. Loly award during a graduation ceremony at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, Calif., on Wednesday, May 1, 2019. The ceremony recognized more than 60 inmates for their educational achievements including Associate of Arts degrees, high school diplomas, General Education Development certifications and those who have completed Career Technical Education programs. Andrew Kuhn akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

“Professor McBride is the first teacher I had that told me that I actually had the ability to write,” Henson said, adding that McBride helped turn English from his most-hated subject to something that moved him to call his mother to let her know that he now likes the subject. He got an A in the class.

McBride “took a complicated process of writing essays and broke it down sentence by sentence, word by word, and made it understandable and made it to where it wasn’t so scary,” Henson said.

Henson said he started to believe in himself and gain self-confidence while working with McBride.

“Winning the Kathleen D. Loly honor society scholarship has altered the trajectory of my thoughts, my desires, my goals,” Henson said. He never considered himself scholarship material, he said; now, he’s planning to take upper-division college courses.

Self-confidence

Sigma Delta Kappa chapter president and co-founder of the program, inmate David Flores, 44, said the scholarship itself was a great experience and one of the first times he has ever won anything like it, especially something he put a lot of work into.

“School was not something that I was very good at growing up and having a second chance to be in college, and then to do well, means a lot to me and means a lot to my family,” Flores said.

According to Flores, he has an associate’s degree in social and behavioral science, as well as psychology, sociology and liberal arts with an emphasis on humanities.

Flores said that school has given him a new pathway in life, helping him to build confidence, something he used to lack.

Passing the test for certification as a drug and alcohol counselor and working as a mentor and co-facilitator in the prison’s substance abuse program has given him purpose in life, he said.

“Along with my certification and education, I’m going to have a future now and that’s something that I didn’t have before,” he said.

500 Chowchilla prison students

McBride said that between Valley State Prison and the adjacent Central California Women’s Facility, Merced College serves about 500 students offering associate of arts transfer degrees as well as general education preparation and transfer requirements preparation. A total of 24 teachers at Merced College provide instruction in all disciplines, she said.

McBride said the college has found the students to be highly engaged and highly motivated in discussing ideas, and that they work hard in the classroom primarily due to the face-to-face interaction with instructors and their peers.

“It’s an important program because it offers face-to-face higher education rather than correspondence work which distances the student from the teacher,” McBride said.

During the three years of the program’s existence, McBride said, officials feel there have been exceptional successes primarily in combating recidivism and giving students a place to go such as community college or to transfer into a four-year college upon parole.

According to McBride, a graduate of the program at Valley State Prison went on to study at Butte College upon his parole and has been accepted to California State University, Chico.

“We’re happy about those successes,” McBride said.

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