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PEP Holds First Graduation for Class of 2019

On May 22, 2019, Prison Education Project students, their friends and family, and members of the Washington University PEP community came together to celebrate the inaugural graduation of 10 students graduating with their Associate in Arts degrees from University College at Washington University in St. Louis.

Ten graduating students received Associate in Arts degrees from University College at Washington University in St. Louis at the inaugural PEP graduation ceremony. This degree requires students to take courses that cover subjects related to moral reasoning, cultural diversity, writing, natural sciences and mathematics, humanities, social sciences and more. Students select a specific concentration – either humanities, social sciences, or natural sciences and mathematics – and complete 18 units of coursework in that specialized area. A total of 60 units is required to graduate with an Associate in Arts degree.

The Ceremony

The PEP graduation ceremony was held at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center (MECC) campus. Students and their family members were able to attend, as well as Washington University faculty, staff, and students. Chancellor Mark Wrighton was among the many WashU representatives in attendance. He was joined by Dean Mark Rollins of University College, Dean Jennifer Smith of the College of Arts & Sciences, and Dean Barbara Schaal of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences. 

The ceremony also paid tribute to Professor Maggie Garb, co-founder of PEP, who passed away in 2018. PEP student Danien Cobb spoke about her at the ceremony (his speech can be read here). Many other PEP students also contributed to a commemoration booklet for Maggie, which was distributed at the graduation. The booklet can be viewed here

Graduation Speaker
Stanley Andrisse, Assistant Professor at Howard University College of Medicine and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, was the PEP graduation speaker.

Originally from North Ferguson, Missouri, Andrisse was arrested for the first time when he was 14. By his 20’s, he had three felony convictions and was facing 10 years in prison for drug trafficking. He was told that he was a “career criminal” with “no hope for change.”  However, when Andrisse finished his sentence, he set out to prove people wrong. He applied to many different graduate schools and, with the help of a former college professor, was ultimately accepted to St. Louis University, where he earned a PhD in Physiology and an MBA, graduating two years early and at the top of his class. Today, in addition to working as an endocrinologist and professor at two elite universities, Andrisse also runs the non-profit organization From Prison Cells to Ph.D, which works to help those with criminal convictions obtain access to higher education.

Student Speaker
PEP graduate Kareem Martin was the student graduation speaker. Kareem spoke about the importance of perseverance and ambition, both in education and in life. His full speech can be read here

“As we move forward, we should remember that we have only just begun our academic journey. We must maintain our original vision, until our goals are realized, and we must embrace the challenges we face in between, because there will no doubt be a few. We have to continue to be “Greater.” Our will and energy to emerge beyond the margins of institutional, and societal barriers, must be Greater. We must approach the next stage of this journey, not matching, but increasing our level of ambition. Despite what others may say, our visions are never too great.” – Kareem Martin

Student Acknowledgements

Stanley Cook, a current PEP student, was the graduation singer. He performed his rendition of “America the Beautiful” for the audience.

Danien Cobb received the Danny Kohl Award for Best Essay, presented by Barbara Baumgartner.

This award is named after Danny Kohl, a longtime professor of biology, who was one of the founding members of Washington University’s Prison Education Project. Danny was a passionate advocate for social justice in St. Louis; notably, he was part of an organization in the 1960s that fought against race discrimination in housing, an organization that participated in a 1968 Supreme Court case that made discrimination in all housing sales and rentals illegal in the United States. He was also an active and outspoken member of the board of Prison Performing Arts (PPA) and was a familiar presence at all of PPA’s performances. Danny was incredibly resilient, amazingly stubborn in the best of ways, and absolutely relentless in making sure things got done. Danny passed away last March, and his energy and enthusiasm continue to be missed.

The Danny Kohl Award for Best Essay is an important reminder of just how central writing is to a liberal arts education. The ability to communicate effectively is at the heart of the exchange of ideas, innovative thinking, and intellectual community that the liberal arts foster.

Danien Cobb’s winning essay, “A Time to Sow a Time to Reap: A Good Man is Hard to Find,” can be read here

Harvey Galler received the Maggie Garb Community Leadership Award, presented by Jami Ake.

In 2011, Washington University history professor Margaret (Maggie) Garb, along with biology professor Danny Kohl, proposed the idea of teaching for-credit, college-level classes in prison. With the help of other faculty, the Washington University Prison Education Project became a reality at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center (MECC) in Fall 2014 with its original course offerings of two classes. Professor Garb’s interest in prison education and her tireless efforts to get the program started and then work towards its growth and expansion, are paradigmatic of her values: she was a huge proponent of the liberal arts, an indefatigable advocate for social justice, and an unflagging believer in the potential of every person. The Maggie Garb Community Leadership Award has been established in her honor.

The award recognizes and honors a PEP student who exemplifies the following:

  • Motivates others to succeed
  • Connects and collaborates with others
  • Values diverse perspectives within the community
  • Works toward the success of the PEP and MECC community
  • Demonstrates ethics and integrity through not just words, but actions
  • Seeks and promotes relationships that foster positive change

External Support & Acknowledgements

PEP would like to say a special thank you to Laughing Bear Bakery for providing the graduation cakes for the ceremony.

PEP would also like to thank Clarion Brass for providing music for the ceremony. 

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