But their journey to this momentous day began in a prison about 70 miles away from the university. These formerly incarcerated men are the first graduates of Cal State LA’s Prison B.A. Graduation Initiative, the first in-person bachelor’s degree completion program for incarcerated students in California.
“When we started this program, none of us expected this. We never thought we were actually going to walk the stage,” said Tin Nguyen, who graduated as part of the Class of 2021. “It was like a dream—it’s the best feeling.”
Based at California State Prison, Los Angeles County in Lancaster, more than 40 students have participated in the program. Nine have now earned their bachelor’s degrees, seven of whom participated in the College of Arts and Letters Commencement ceremonies on Wednesday.
Most students in Cal State LA’s prison education program have been behind bars for decades, many since their teen years. Through the program, some have become the first person in their family to earn a college degree and now have a chance to contribute to society.
A total of 12 students from the program, including Nguyen, have had their life sentence commuted. As Cal State LA students, they received assistance from Cal State LA’s Project Rebound, a program that aids formerly incarcerated individuals with re-entry and their continued education following their release.
The graduates donned gold Project Rebound stoles on their graduation gowns as they basked in their moment on the Commencement stage on July 28. While their names were read aloud, the graduates smiled, threw up peace signs or two thumbs up, struck a pose and stretched their arms out wide in triumph.
“It just got real when I actually walked up onstage,” said Allen Burnett, a graduate of the Class of 2021. “When I got up there it all resonated that I’m free, I’m finally graduating.”
Burnett said he couldn’t sleep the night before, tossing and turning and waking up periodically, anxious with anticipation. “Time was moving too slow for me,” he said, laughing.
The graduates shared their celebration with friends and family, who cheered from the stands at Cal State LA’s Reeder Field, faculty and administrators, who first met the men in prison, and representatives of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
“Watching them graduate is incredibly powerful,” said Taffany Lim, executive director for the Center for Engagement, Service, and the Public Good at Cal State LA, her eyes welling up with tears. “It’s so emotional, you realize how much impact it has on their families.”
Cal State LA’s Prison Graduation Initiative is a collaboration between the university’s Center for Engagement, Service, and the Public Good, the Department of Communication Studies in the College of Arts and Letters, and the College of Professional and Global Education.
“Graduation is just the beginning for the students in our prison education program,” says Jose A. Gomez, Cal State LA’s executive vice president and provost. “Their determination to continue learning and finding ways to improve their communities illustrates the power of education to transform, heal and empower.”
One has started a business, another works for a nonprofit advocating for those who are still incarcerated, and several have started or will soon begin master’s degree programs in business, communications and rehabilitative services.
As Cal State LA President William A. Covino conferred the graduates’ degrees at the conclusion of the afternoon Commencement ceremony, the men turned their tassels from the right to the left. A small gesture symbolically signifying the transition from a student to a graduate.
“It was beautiful—it was official,” Burnett said of the moment. “Before this, we just got our diploma in the mail, but this right here—it sums it all up.”
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California State University, Los Angeles is the premier comprehensive public university in the heart of Los Angeles. Cal State LA is ranked number one in the United States for the upward mobility of its students. Cal State LA is dedicated to engagement, service, and the public good, offering nationally recognized programs in science, the arts, business, criminal justice, engineering, nursing, education, and the humanities. Founded in 1947, the University serves more than 26,000 students and has more than 250,000 distinguished alumni.
Cal State LA is home to the critically-acclaimed Luckman Fine Arts Complex, Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center, Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility, Billie Jean King Sports Complex and the TV, Film and Media Center. For more information, visit www.CalStateLA.edu.