Women’s College Partnership celebrates first commencement at Indiana Women’s Prison

August 17, 2023

Photo courtesy Mykal McEldowney/Indy Star

Dressed in Marian University’s blue commencement regalia and speaking to her fellow graduates, Michelle Williams acknowledged that society often views people like them — those who have been incarcerated — through “a lens of failure.”

And, she added, “Sure, we’ve all failed, right? Every single one of us. But just as important is knowing there is the opportunity to begin again. Today, we’ve seen the fruit of that.”

Williams is one of 14 currently or formerly incarcerated women who received their associate’s or bachelor’s degrees from Marian University on August 7 when the Women’s College Partnership held its first commencement at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis. The partnership is part of Notre Dame Programs for Education in Prison, an initiative of the Center for Social Concerns.

The celebration in the prison’s chapel was complete with music provided by Marian’s jazz band, a commencement address by Tiffanie Agee, interim dean of Miles Law School in Alabama, and plenty of joyful tears and standing ovations.

The audience was filled with graduates’ family members and students currently enrolled in the Women’s College Partnership. They cheered as each graduate walked across the chapel stage to receive her diploma. They were moved by slam poetry, singing, and lyrical dancing performed in tribute to Lisa Van Morrison, a graduate who died of cancer a few weeks before the ceremony.

Marian University President Dan Elsener and Commissioner Christina Reagle of the Indiana Department of Correction presided over the commencement.

“This is a distinct privilege for me today,” Elsener told the graduates, “because I admire you.”

Many of the women talked about how they’ve grown to admire themselves and each other, too.

Sharon Collins is a graduate who explained how a college degree has been life-changing not only for her and her classmates, but also for their children and even their parents. She said her education through the Women’s College Partnership increased her self-esteem “to levels that I could never imagine.”

Since being released from prison in 2020, Collins has established a nonprofit called Caring About the True You that helps others in the ways she was assisted during her incarceration. “When you care about yourself, you learn to care about others,” she told The Criterion, a newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, in its coverage of the commencement ceremony.

Rheann Kelly, who earned associate’s and bachelor’s degrees from Marian, is showing her gratitude for the opportunity and paying it forward by serving as a tutor for other women in the partnership. She told the Indianapolis Star that education has “given us a new identity and a new purpose.”

Notre Dame Programs for Education in Prison, NDPEP for short, is committed to bringing a world-class liberal arts education to eligible incarcerated men and women in Indiana. It fulfills this mission through a network of programs and partnerships — including the Women’s College Partnership, which gives those at the Indiana Women’s Prison the opportunity to earn associate’s and bachelor’s degrees from Marian.

The Women’s College Partnership begins its fifth year of operation this month. There are 45 students enrolled to take classes in the 2023-24 academic year.

The partnership’s first commencement was postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, so all past graduates were invited to celebrate their academic achievements on August 7.

“It was such an amazing and special day,” said Justin McDevitt, director of the Women’s College Partnership. “We got to see two premier Catholic institutions of higher education coming together to live out the mission of Matthew 25.”