(Reuters) - Northwestern University's Prison Education Program welcomed its inaugural graduating class of incarcerated students on Wednesday, marking the first time a top-ranked U.S. university has awarded degrees to students in prison.
Evanston, Illinois-based Northwestern, which U.S. News & World Report ranks ninth for national universities, runs the program in partnership with Oakton College and the Illinois Department of Corrections.
It was a moving commencement ceremony for the 16 graduating men and their loved ones at the Stateville correctional facility in Crest Hill.
"I have no words for this, (it's) otherworldly. Coming from where I came from, the things that I've been through and to be here is indescribable," said graduate Michael Broadway after the ceremony.
Broadway attained his degree despite several setbacks, including battling stage 4 prostate cancer.
"I'm just so proud of him," said his mother Elizabeth. "I really am. He looks so good in that gown." Due to ill health, she had not seen Broadway since he was incarcerated in 2005, and during the ceremony the two shared tears and hugs as they made up for lost time.
Broadway, 51, is scheduled to be released in 2084.
If he is released before then, he said he would like to start a nonprofit focused on youth empowerment.
Professor Jennifer Lackey is the program's founding director.
"Twenty years ago, some of these guys were in rival gangs, and here they are swapping poetry with each other and giving critical engagements on sociology assignments," said Lackey. "The love and growth that we see in the community is really unlike anything I've experienced at the on-campus commencements."
Around 100 students are enrolled in the Northwestern program across Stateville and the Logan Correctional Center, a women's prison.
Newly-minted Northwestern graduate James Soto plans to continue his education in law school.
He hopes that this first class of incarcerated students is just the beginning.
"I'm not something special, there are many more like me. And I hope that they get the opportunity to be released as well so that we can showcase and perhaps really change the world."
(Reporting by Eric Cox; Editing by Josie Kao)