Behind Bars, Reaching for the Stars

Author: John M.R. Bull

The graduates wore traditional black gowns and tasseled mortarboards. The university president gave his congratulations. The student body representative spoke of resilience.

One-by-one, the students came forward to be presented with their Associate of Science degrees and the applause of their professors and visitors.

The branch campus was ringed in barbed wire and guard towers.

This was the first-of-its-kind commencement ceremony in a North Carolina prison – medium custody offenders graduating in person with two-year degrees from Campbell University at no cost to taxpayers.

“I know you have all earned your diplomas,” said Campbell President J. Bradley Creed.

“This is a monumental thing,” added Bob Barker, president and CEO of the Bob Barker Company, who donated funds for this educational initiative and who gave the commencement address to the Sampson Correctional Class of 2021.

“I really believe this is your second chance,” he told the graduates. “You’ve proven you can do the work over the past two years.”

Of the 11 new graduates of Campbell University, 10 of them earned honors in their last semester.

In fact, in their final semester, five were named to the Campbell University Dean's List and five were named to the Campbell University President's List. The total class GPA was recorded as 3.78 in their last semester.

“A substantial body of literature has shown getting an education or a job vastly improves the chances an offender will succeed on release from prison,” said Sarah Cobb, Prisons’ director of programs and rehabilitative services. “We want them to succeed. We don’t want them to return to our custody.”

The staff at the prison worked hard to keep this two-year associate degree program going during the pandemic. They worked to obtain the necessary educational supplies, to get vaccinated Campbell University professors back into the classrooms, to get the vaccinated students on track during viral outbreaks while following all of the pandemic protection requirements.

“This has been a long journey,” said Campbell Professor Rick Smith. “There have been a lot of obstacles in our paths.”

This liberal arts degree program was funded by grants and university funds. There was no cost to taxpayers.

This program is in keeping with the Department of Public Safety’s mission to rehabilitate offenders. And this initiative is in line with the university’s mission and faith-based orientation to address the educational needs of rural and underserved segments of society.

In fact, one of the professors in the fall semester was a university vice president, Dr. John Roberson, who taught Intro to Christianity.

Other certified educators taught a college prep course, general psychology and English 101. All are college entry-level courses.

The offender-students were carefully selected. They had few infractions, were determined to be capable of handling the course load and were found to be highly motivated.

One-by-one, the graduates were handed their diplomas, gave socially-distanced waves to their professors seated in their graduation regalia, and gave a fist bump as they passed Sampson Correctional Warden Bob Van Gorder.

“I have watched a group of young men over the last two years evolve from loners to team players, from hopeless to hopeful, and from being a marked member of society to becoming an example for those around them, their families and their children,” he said. “It is without question that they have lived the Campbell motto “AD ASTRA PER ASPERA”, meaning, “through adversity to the stars.”


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