The Charger Blog

University's Prison Education Program and Yale Prison Education Initiative Celebrate Class of 2024

The program's second annual Commencement ceremony recognized the accomplishments of the program's newest graduates, and was the first Bachelor of Arts degree graduation ceremony in a prison in Connecticut.

May 28, 2024

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Dr. Jens Frederiksen celebrated with the new graduates.
Dr. Jens Frederiksen (right) celebrated with the new graduates.

Marcos Mercado '24 A.A. stepped up to a wooden podium emblazoned with the University of New Haven's name and seal and "Class of 2024" across the top – a podium that he had built. As he stood at the podium surrounded by his classmates and members of the University community, he told them a story.

Speaking as part of the second annual Commencement ceremony of the University of New Haven Prison Education Program and the Yale Prison Education Initiative, Mercado told some of his own story, as well as that of a man who had died many centuries earlier. The man's skull had been found recently, and it was evident that the individual had suffered serious head trauma. But, explained, Mercado, it was evident that despite the seriousness of the injury, the trauma had not been what had ultimately led to the man's death. Instead, he'd continued to live, indicating that he had been supported by members of his community.

"He survived a dent in the head because he was cared for – that's grace," said Mercado. "Being in prison can be like that injury, and we need grace. I find it inspiring that everyone qualifies for grace. It's a hallmark of humanity. This prison education program is one of the most important and impactful programs I've heard of."

Marcos Mercado ’24 A.A.
Marcos Mercado ’24 A.A. speaks as part of the Commencement celebration.
'The first B.A. degrees'

Mercado, who graduated with high honors, accepted his associate degree as part of the ceremony. The prison education program enables individuals who are incarcerated at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, Conn., to earn college credits and pursue their education.

The University conferred 13 degrees as part of the ceremony – 11 associate degrees (included one awarded posthumously) and two Bachelor of Arts degrees – the first such degrees awarded by the program and the partnership. The ceremony marked the first bachelor's degrees awarded in a prison in Connecticut.

"These aren't just the first B.A. graduates as part of the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, they're the first B.A. degrees given in any prison in Connecticut," said Zelda Roland, Ph.D., founding director of the Yale Prison Education Initiative and the University of New Haven Prison Education Program.

'It all matters'

The members of the program's Class of 2024 excelled in the classroom. All associate degree graduates at the ceremony earned high honors, and two tied for valedictorian, each earning a 4.0 GPA. The two B.A. grads also graduated with honors – one graduating cum laude and the other magna cum laude.

For Michael Papineau Jr. '24 A.A., the opportunity to earn his degree and become an honors student was lifechanging. Speaking as part of the ceremony, he described feeling like a failure in his life. But his educational journey now has him feeling pleased with what he's been able to accomplish.

Graduates at the ceremony
The University recognized graduates who earned associate and Bachelor of Arts degrees.

"Here I stand with high honors, and I'm extremely proud and honored," he said. "We are more than the sum of our parts. Next time you ask yourself, 'does this matter,' remember, it all matters."

The University held the inaugural Commencement celebration for the program last spring, recognizing more than half a dozen graduates. The program has been continuing to expand, offering more students the chance to pursue educational opportunities – including incarcerated women in the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut. The first associate degrees there were also awarded this year, and they will be celebrated in a ceremony next year. It is the only college program offered to incarcerated women in any federal prison in the U.S.

The University of New Haven joined with the Yale Prison Education Initiative (YPEI) in 2021 to enable incarcerated students to matriculate in two- and four-year degrees. It was launched through a $1.5 million award from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

'You're a testament to the power of education'

Jens Frederiksen, Ph.D., president of the University of New Haven, visited a policy briefs class at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution earlier this spring. He was moved by the students' passion for learning, which he described as "infectious.

"I hope the students have half the transformative experience that I did," he told the new graduates. "Please know that you are leading by example. Never forget the important role each of you will play in guiding others into a world of opportunity. This graduation is just the beginning."

Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine delivers the Commencement address.

Claudia Rankine, an award-winning author who has written five books of poetry, four plays, and is the co-editor of several anthologies, delivered the Commencement address. Rankine, who teaches in the Creative Writing Program at New York University and co-founded The Racial Imaginary Institute, urged the graduates to continue to strive for authenticity.

"Your journeys have been marked by challenges, but, through it all, you've discovered that education isn't just about acquiring knowledge," she said. "It's about finding strength. Each of you by being here has proven you can refuse to let circumstances define you. You've set an undeniable example for your families and friends, and you're a testament to the power of education to transform lives."

'We are the changemakers'

As part of the ceremony, graduates were recognized for their academic achievements and dedication to excellence. They celebrated with their professors, program staff, families, friends, and current students.

Graduates at the ceremony
The ceremony was a meaningful way for the new grads to celebrate their accomplishments.

For new graduate Khari Miller '24 A.A., the transformative power of education has changed his entire perspective. He says earning his associate degree gave him the opportunity to challenge himself and to become a version of himself that he'd never had thought possible. He also saw the transformative impact on his classmates as they bonded over their newfound passion for learning.

"I believe the key to any meaningful change is education," he said. "I began to notice changes in myself, and I acquired a thirst for knowledge. Education is contagious here. We've planted the seeds of change, and now we watch these seeds bear fruit. We are the changemakers."