First-ever college graduation in prison celebrates inmate accomplishments

IONIA – His tassel flipped from right to left, his name called from the podium and the grip-and-grin photo snapshot with Calvin University’s president taken, James Sturdivant slowly sank back into his seat among his fellow college graduates. He slowly opened the maroon-colored folder bearing his diploma, stared at it and shut the cover.

Then, he opened it again.

“I just wanted to make sure it was real,” Sturdivant said of the piece of paper signifying he earned a bachelor’s degree in faith and community leadership, with a minor in social work from Calvin, a private Christian liberal arts college in Grand Rapids.

The degree is real. So were the tall fences topped with barbed wire less than 10 steps away from where Sturdivant sat with 45 other bachelor degree recipients and 31 associate degree recipients inside the Michigan Department of Correction’s Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility Monday afternoon.

The graduates were among three classes – the classes of 2020, 2021 and 2022 – to receive degrees from Calvin in what school and prison officials say was the first bachelor’s degree ceremony inside an active prison in modern history. Those who graduate from the Calvin Prison Initiative get the same degree as students on the main campus do. Last year, the program’s first graduate, out on parole, participated in Calvin’s main graduation ceremonies last year.

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