September 15, 2023

A time for hope: Marian, Notre Dame combine efforts in first college graduation at Women’s Prison

Michelle Williams, left, and Rheann Kelly pose for a photo in front of a stained-glass window in the chapel of the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis on Aug. 7 after receiving their college diplomas from Marian University in Indianapolis.  (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Michelle Williams, left, and Rheann Kelly pose for a photo in front of a stained-glass window in the chapel of the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis on Aug. 7 after receiving their college diplomas from Marian University in Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The barbed wire atop towering fences and the jarring clanging of heavy iron doors at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis can define lives marked by crime, failure and loss of freedom.

Yet inside the prison’s chapel on a recent August afternoon, that view of the world was changing for Michelle Williams as she sat in front of a stained-glass image of Jesus that showed him extending his right hand in a gesture of invitation and acceptance.

Moments later, Williams rose from her seat, walked by the image of the forgiving God she has embraced in her life, and strode up the steps of the chapel’s stage to deliver a graduation speech on behalf of the 13 other women who were also receiving degrees from Marian University in Indianapolis.

It was all part of the first commencement ceremony at the prison of the Women’s College Partnership, involving Marian and the University of Notre Dame.

As Williams—wearing the blue cap and graduation gown of Marian— settled in front of a microphone, her thoughts included the memory of a former fellow inmate and graduate who had been released early from prison on good behavior and planned to be a counselor before cancer took her life just a few weeks before the graduation ceremony.

That personal loss was another part of the trials and tears that these women have endured in their degree-pursuing journeys to a present marked with increased

self-worth and toward a future touched with growing hope—a journey that Williams shared in her emotional speech.

She acknowledged that people often view those in prison through “a lens of failure,” adding, “And sure, we’ve all failed, right? Every single one of us. But just as important is knowing there is the opportunity to begin again. Today, we’ve seen the fruit of that.”

She addressed the prison staff members who have supported the graduates and the Marian instructors who came to the prison to teach them in classes, noting, “We’re more intelligent because you invested in us. We’re more intelligent because you taught us not to give up.”

And she referred to the mercy of God, quoting Isaiah 30:19: “You shall no longer weep; he will be most gracious to you when you cry out; as soon as he hears, he will answer you.”

She also had words of thanks for her fellow graduates whom she called “God’s amazing, beautiful women,” saying, “This journey has been so long, but it has been so well worth it. Every step of the way, you’ve had rough barriers we faced. We were able to grow and endure.”

When she finished, everyone in the chapel rose to give her a standing ovation.

‘God was so present in the entire ceremony’

As the director of the college partnership program, Justin McDevitt was among the audience members who rose to cheer Williams, flashing a smile that beamed again and again during the ceremony that celebrated redemption and rehabilitation.

The program’s partnership between Marian and Notre Dame offers inmates the opportunity to earn associate and bachelor’s degrees and support when they eventually re-enter the world outside the prison. The program is funded through grants and private donations.

“It was such an amazing and special day,” McDevitt said later. “We got to see two premier Catholic institutions of higher education coming together to live out the mission of Matthew 25. God was so present in the entire ceremony, start to finish, and it’s no wonder people were so moved. I’m still so full of joy.”

So were the female graduates. With their caps and gowns covering their usual prison clothes, they proudly stepped forward to receive their diplomas from Daniel Elsener, president of Marian University.

In welcoming the graduates as Marian alumni, Elsener told the women earlier that he admired their dedication in earning their degrees. He also challenged them to live out the values of the Franciscan university—to respect “the dignity of every human person, to strive for peace and justice, to be responsible stewards of your gifts and your talents and education, to be a source of reconciliation.”

Lisa Van Morrison strived to live that way following her early release from prison on good behavior, but she lost her fight with cancer just weeks before the graduation. Her cap and gown—and a bouquet of flowers—were placed on a chair among the graduates. That scene led to even more poignant emotions among the graduates and others in the chapel when her parents rose from their seats to receive their daughter’s diploma from Elsener.

After the ceremony, her parents talked about how hard she had worked to achieve her degree, how much she would have savored the ceremony, and especially how proud of her they are.

“She would have been thrilled,” said her mother, Carol. “She worked hard. She wanted to be a counselor.” Pausing for a few seconds, she lowered her eyes and added, “She was really only sick about three weeks.”

Nodding, her dad Leon said, “She had a second chance and really made good use of it. She turned her life around.”

That is the hope for all the graduates.

Embracing a different foundation of success

After the ceremony, their hope and joy were on full display as they posed for photo after photo in front of a Marian University backdrop, a photo session that concluded with them laughing and smiling as they tossed their caps into the air.

In the moments that followed, some of the graduates talked about the journey toward their degrees—and where they hope their education will lead them.

Sharon Collins shared how the graduates felt hopeless at times, “but then we prayed and trusted God to deliver us.” She mentioned how “life-changing” their degrees are, not just for them but for their children and even their parents. She also talked about how the journey has given her a foundation for success that goes far beyond a diploma: “When you care about yourself, you learn to care about others.”

Rheann Kelly, who earned both an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree, noted, “I’m just so grateful. I feel it opens up doors for the future, for different possibilities moving forward. This is going to help me be a productive member of society.”

She and her fellow graduates are already an inspiration to other women in the prison. Forty-five of them are pursuing college degrees in the 2023-24 academic year.

‘I finally have accomplished something’

Michelle Williams will tell them that the feeling of accomplishment is well worth the challenges and the hard work.

As she posed for a photo with Kelly in their caps and gowns in front of the stained-glass image of Jesus in the prison chapel, Williams exuded a sense of peace, joy and dignity—qualities that were at the heart of the prayer to God for the graduates that Holy Cross Father Robert Dowd shared at the end of the ceremony.

“Help them to continually grow in awareness of their God-given dignity, the dignity that comes from you and that no one can take away,” prayed Father Dowd, Notre Dame’s vice president and associate provost for interdisciplinary initiatives. “And help them to grow in respect of the dignity of others along the way.

“May your Spirit which sets us free enliven our hearts and minds to grow even more attentive to the needs of those around us. Help us all to use the gifts we have received, especially the gift of education, to make our communities, our country, our world a better place.”

That’s the hope and the plan for Williams.

“I am so overwhelmed and so blessed,” she said. “The reality for me is being 46 years old and just now receiving my associate’s and now working toward my bachelor’s. At first, I thought I could never do it because of my age. And now I know I can do anything I put my mind to.

“When I see a graduation ceremony in a movie or on television, I’m bawling my eyes out because it’s something in my life I didn’t get to do. So being here today is like full circle. I finally have accomplished something, and I know who I am today.” †

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