A father stands tall, buttoning his suit. A grandmother leans forward, whispering to family. A brother is pulled, bright-eyed, into a group embrace.
It’s an overcast morning in eastern Missouri and the weather’s not the only thing getting misty.
“We seem to have a lot of grown men with allergies,” joked Jacob Bitters. Dubious pollen count notwithstanding, Bitters was among 18 students to earn degrees May 25 during the Washington University Prison Education Project’s 2022 commencement ceremony.
“Each and every graduate in this room today has overcome challenges, dedicated numerous hours to their studies and worked selflessly to support one another,” said Washington University’s PEP director Kevin Windhauser. “Our graduates exemplify the very best that higher education can be.”
The ceremony began with a brass rendition of “Pomp and Circumstance,” as Chancellor Andrew D. Martin led a faculty and student procession across the visitors room of the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific, Mo. Dozens of friends, family members and MECC staff gathered in support.
Stanley Cook, who earned an associate in arts degree, sang “America the Beautiful.” PEP alumni Harvey Galler and Jameel Spann, attending a conference in Washington, D.C., sent recorded congratulations. Galler also announced current PEP student Cory Pride as winner of the 2022 Maggie Garb Community Leadership Award, named for the project’s late co-founder.
Jeffrey Wooldridge, who earned a bachelor’s degree in integrated studies, received the Danny Kohl Award for Best Essay — which honors the late WashU professor and longtime St. Louis activist — for “SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19): What the Science Says.” University College academic adviser Rebecca O’Laughlin inducted new members into the Alpha Sigma Lambda honors society. St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones also recorded congratulations.
The graduate address was delivered by formerly incarcerated writer Mitchell S. Jackson, who won a 2021 Pulitzer Prize for his essay on Ahmaud Arbery — and whose autobiographical novel “The Residue Years” (2014) is a longstanding favorite with the PEP reading group.
“Huge congratulations to every single person in the class of 2022,” said Jackson, adding a shout-out to bachelor’s recipient Torey Adams, the first PEP student to be accepted into a graduate studies program. “Major props to everyone here. What a great thing you did.”
Quoting Toni Morrison, George Saunders and Rainer Maria Rilke, Jackson encouraged graduates to nurture lives of exploration, kindness and self-reflection. He told stories of his own youth, describing the cocky middle-schooler whose basketball dreams outstripped his skills, as well as the fledgling author who defied a mentor’s advice to abandon his manuscript.
“What I learned about myself was that I was willing to put in the work for as long as it took,” Jackson told the assembled. That’s something, he added, “you all probably have discovered about yourselves.”
“I want to ask you some questions,” Jackson continued. “What are you passionate about? Would it be only on the inside that you put in that work? Would you do it out in the world?
“Who could dissuade you from pursuing what you love?”
Student speaker Larry Marshall, who earned a bachelor’s degree, described how education helps to overcome society’s expectations.
“We are told that we are our mistakes,” said Marshall, to nods from the audience. “We are told that because of our mistakes, society will not accept us. But being part of WashU has given me a better perspective of who I am as a person and as a student.”
Bitters, who earned an associate’s degree and was also a student speaker during the ceremony, described the inspirational example of his grandmother, who he said defied gender barriers to become an airplane mechanic. Bitters also praised previous PEP graduates like Galler and Spann as well as Jim Brock, who now works as the project’s alumni coordinator.
“I see how this program changes people,” continued Bitters, who plans to complete his bachelor’s degree after being released this summer. “I can see where each one of you guys are heading.
“Let’s go out and prove that this program changes lives,” Bitters concluded, “and that all the sacrifices from all the volunteers and all the people who come out here every day really matter.”