Ryan Burrell, Roy Burvick, Danis Flores, Khalan Pendelton and Vincent Thompson became the first graduates of NYU’s Prison Education Program yesterday afternoon. All five students received associate’s degrees in Liberal Studies.
“It feels excellent to graduate,” Burvick said, whose favorite class was theater. “It’s an honor, NYU, the best college in the state. I feel like a king. I feel like a champ. I feel like a winner.”
The graduation was held in the gym of Wallkill Correctional Facility — a medium security prison in upstate New York — but featured hallmarks of any college graduation. The atmosphere was jovial. A jazz duo performed. Family members of all five graduates were in attendance and many shed tears when they weren’t too busy cheering on the graduates.
Though some graduates were rendered speechless by their feelings, Pendelton said he felt elated.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Pendelton said. “It’s euphoric you could say.”
Flores hopes to do volunteer work upon his release and hopes to further pursue his education.
“I’ve been given a second chance,” Flores said. “I want to make something out of myself. I need to become somebody.”
“It feels as good as freedom,” Burrell said of graduating. “Being in prison, we’re counted out so when you can accomplish something this big … wow.”
Burvick, Flores and Pendelton will be released in the coming months, and both Burrell and Thompson were released earlier this year but decided to come back to the prison to graduate in support of their fellow students.
“We started in the program together, we’re going to graduate together, we wanted to go out right,” Burrell said.
Each graduate has served 10 years or more in prison, and in the future, all five hope to continue their education. They also all plan to attend NYU’s commencement ceremony at Yankee Stadium in the coming spring.
Many of the graduates’ fellow PEP students were inspired by Burrell and Thompson’s decision to come back into prison so they could graduate with their classmates.
“That really was inspiring, they came back in and supported their guys that graduated and inspired us,” current PEP student James Keno said. “I cried the whole time.”
The graduation ceremony included remarks from Nikhil Singh, the faculty director of PEP, Gallatin Dean Susanne Wofford, President Andrew Hamilton and each of the students.
Because the number of graduates was small, Hamilton was able to do something he doesn’t normally do at NYU graduations: hand deliver diplomas to each individual student.
“Think how hard it is to get a degree in a setting like this without access to the internet, without the library next door, and these guys have shown incredible grit and perseverance,” Hamilton said in an interview. “Achieving what they’ve achieved is quite remarkable and NYU can be very proud.”
Email Sayer Devlin at [email protected].