‘The people we were meant to be’

Prison Education Project holds first commencement at Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center

Washington University’s School of Continuing & Professional Studies Prison Education Project held its first women’s commencement May 16 at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia, Mo. Pictured (from left) are: Dylan Staudte, Ashley Townsend, Tessa Van Vlerah, Marna Weber and Natasha White. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

“It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Marna Weber. “Who could pass that up?”

Weber is discussing the Washington University in St. Louis School of Continuing & Professional Studies Prison Education Project (PEP), which in 2022 began offering free classes at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia, Mo.

“I wanted to turn my life around,” Weber said. “But I didn’t have much education. Everything was new. It was like learning to walk and talk again.”

On May 16, Weber was among 11 students to complete associate of arts degrees from WashU and be recognized during the Vandalia program’s inaugural commencement ceremony. A twelfth student, Deborah Huber, was released this spring, earned her degree and took part in the universitywide Commencement May 13.

Natasha Orender remembers hearing about PEP but was nervous to apply. “I didn’t think I’d get in,” she said. “But I did! My self-esteem took off.” Now, she hopes to use her education to aid victims of domestic violence.

“College in prison doesn’t just transform people,” PEP director Kevin Windhauser said in his remarks to the graduates. “It transforms institutions. When PEP students bring their boundless curiosity and indefatigable inquisitiveness to the classroom, they often transform the way faculty teach, in turn shaping their pedagogy back on the Danforth Campus.

“Today is a celebration of our PEP students,” Windhauser added, “but it is also a thank you for all the ways you make Washington University a better place.”

Marna Weber won the Maggie Garb Community Leadership Award, named for PEP’s late co-founder. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

‘Full circle’

PEP was launched in 2014 at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center (MECC), a men’s facility in Pacific, Mo. In the decade since, the project has recruited more than 100 WashU faculty to teach classes, awarded more than 50 degrees, and seen more than 30 alumni return home to the St. Louis area.

On May 15, PEP hosted its third MECC commencement, following ceremonies in 2019 and 2022. Six students earned bachelor’s degrees. Five earned associate’s degrees. Two walked in anticipation of earning associate’s degrees this fall.

“I cried tears of joy, and tears of relief, the day I was accepted to PEP,” MECC student speaker James Eisman said. “I had been waiting my entire life for that day. A day when someone could see my worth as a person. Someone willing to invest in my future. This is what PEP does. It invests in students’ futures and reveals their hidden potential.”

“Today is a new beginning,” Eisman added. “It’s a celebration of your accomplishments; a fresh start; a rebirth of self. It’s a chance to erase our neglected past … An opportunity to show the world that men can change.”

Solomon Evans, a U.S. Navy veteran who earned a bachelor’s degree, completed a capstone project focused on computational models of microbial evolution. He grew up in University City, near Ackert Walkway, which connects the Delmar Loop with WashU’s Danforth Campus. As a teenager, he delivered pizzas for Cicero’s and hung out with students. Once, friends invited him to spin records on KWUR, the WashU student radio station.

“It was supposed to be a rock show,” Evans said with a laugh. “I played Earth, Wind & Fire.” He pauses, taking in the occasion — the friends, family and faculty who’ve come to celebrate his achievement.

“It’s almost full circle.”

Student speaker Tessa Van Vlerah is congratulated by Sean Armstrong, dean of the School of Continuing & Professional Studies. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

‘Not just another number’

Back in Vandalia, Sandra Dallas straightened her cap and smooths her gown. “I haven’t done this since high school,” she said. “In 1975!”

Like Marna Weber, Dallas transferred to Vandalia from the Chillicothe Correctional Center to join the new program. “I like to challenge myself — and this environment creates a whole new level of challenge. You have to take advantage of every opportunity.”

Asked about her favorite classes and assignments, Dallas took a moment to consider. “I like writing. I’m a Melville fan and really liked ‘Moby Dick.’ You can almost smell the ocean or see what it was like to work on ships. There’s so much information that would have been lost to time if it wasn’t written down.”

“My path to this podium was not a direct route,” said Tessa Van Vlerah, who delivered the student address. During her first semester at community college, she’d hoped to teach art but, after incarceration, “I thought my learning days were over. In fact, I thought everything was over.”

Resuming her studies with PEP, Van Vlerah was supported by faculty but also learned to rely on her classmates. “They face the same challenges that I do. We grow together, we fail together, we move forward together, we prevail together.

“WashU has made me feel like I’m worth something, that I’m not just another number and that what I offer is valid,” Van Vlerah concluded. “We all get a chance to grow and become the people that we were meant to be.”

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