It's the time of the year when young men and women turn their tassels, toss their caps into the sky and dream about a bright future.
But one group of graduates from Georgia's class of 2023 stands out from the rest.
"The thing that makes us want to do it, those of us who have taught there, the reason we love it so much is that they're the best students we've had," Georgia State University Perimeter College geology professor Polly Bouker said. "I've worked 23 years in higher education, and this has been my absolute top experience."
On May 5, Perimeter College graduated its first class of students who earned their associate degrees while incarcerated, part of Georgia State University's Prison Education Project. The nine graduates from Walker State Prison in Rock Spring earned their degrees in general studies, taking classes in a variety of subjects. According to the college, three graduated with GPAs above 3.9, and the rest were above 3.7.
Bouker began teaching the students in January 2022. Her class included 12 people, the nine graduates and three others who started later. Their ages range from 35 to 61.
At first, Bouker would send a flash drive with video lectures and homework assignments to the prison, but she said the men impressed her with their dedication and curiosity. She said they would often send questions with their homework that demonstrated they were thinking hard about the material.
"Normally, if you're teaching about minerals to students, they're just thinking about 'What do I need to know to pass the test' and not 'How does it relate to something bigger?'" she said. "They definitely were thinking about the bigger picture, why things work the way they do and not just taking for granted what I told them."
She said she was so impressed that despite a three-hour commute each way, Bouker has been driving to the north Georgia prison nearly every week to hold classes in person. She's worked with prison administration to be able to bring in rocks, minerals and fossils as well as microscopes to aid in the students' lessons. Last fall, she began working as the program's site coordinator as well.
The Georgia Department of Corrections describes Walker State Prison as a facility that provides a pro-social, programmatic environment for change to those offenders who voluntarily request to participate in the program.
Without access to the internet, the students peppered Bouker with questions about all sorts of science and technology subjects. One student interested in particle physics wanted to know all about the CERN Large Hadron Collider, while others were fascinated with Ghat GPT, the advanced AI chatbot.
The students also ask questions about their prospects once they get out.
"They'd make comments on some of that homework they were sending to me before I met them face-to-face, things like, 'I can't believe I'm saying this, but I really find this fascinating. Do you think someone like me could ever work as a geologist if I majored in geology when I get out of prison?' And what he meant by someone like me is, is there any chance I could get a job with my history?" Bouker said.
"And, of course, I don't know the answer to that, but I said, 'I don't think geology is going to be any harder than anything else. There are going to be biases, but you should do what you think you want to do,'" she said.
Research links educational attainment with a lower recidivism rate, but previously incarcerated people face hurdles in enrolling into college, Georgia State University Prison Education Program Director Patrick Rodriguez said.
"If our students are able to obtain an education while on the inside, then when they come home, they will be better equipped to face the challenges they will ultimately face on release," he said. "Our policies in Georgia lay out clear challenges for housing, education and some government benefits. These issues are pressing considering the high rates of incarceration in Georgia. I am excited to continue working towards a Georgia that supports formerly incarcerated people, and I do believe that we can get there."
Rodriguez is also the co-executive director of the Georgia Coalition for Higher Education in Prison, whose advocacy includes the Beyond the Box initiative, a push for better education access for formerly incarcerated people.
Among all the other questions on a college application is one asking about the student's criminal background. If they tick the box indicating they have been convicted of a felony, they are subject to further questioning.
Rodriguez, who served about five years on drug-related charges before graduating from Kennesaw State University, said his application process was lengthy and difficult to navigate and involved reliving experiences from his past and collecting a large number of documents.
"All of this was to convince Kennesaw State University that I was able to continue an education," he said. "I feel as if my academic history and who I am as a person did not count for anything. There was a spotlight on a crime that I committed years ago, and all I wanted to do was to complete my degree so I could be a productive citizen of Georgia and realize a goal I had set for myself years before."
Many other potential students stop in their tracks as soon as they get to that question and never complete their applications, said Lawrenceville Democratic state Rep. Gregg Kennard, author of a bill seeking to remove that question from applications in Georgia.
"We know that just that question is deterring a lot of folks from attending higher education, so we want to remove that barrier, the stigma, and get as many of our high schoolers into seeking a four-year degree as possible," he said. "If you look at our prison population statistics, only 1% of the population reflects four-year degree holders. So you get one of our young people into a college with a four-year degree, it almost eliminates them from ever being under correctional control."
Kennard's bill, which will still be active in next year's legislative session, was amended to exempt four violent sex crimes, allowing colleges to ask applicants about arrests or convictions for rape, aggravated sodomy, aggravated child molestation or aggravated sexual battery.
Kennard said he feels positive about the bill's chances.
"It's got bipartisan support, the bill has three Republican sponsors and three Democratic sponsors," he said. "It did get a hearing. We want to bring it back to the Higher Education Committee next year and, hopefully, get it through."
Read more at GeorgiaRecorder.com.