Omar Padilla never received a high school diploma. He dropped out after his junior year and joined a gang. But on Monday, he received an associates’ degree in Liberal Studies from NYU after taking two years of classes while incarcerated at Wallkill Correctional Facility.
“It’s something I’ve been wanting to achieve my whole life,” Padilla said. “With the price of my freedom, I was able to enjoy graduating.”
Padilla, who contributes to WSN’s The Wallkill Journal, graduated from NYU’s Prison Education program alongside five others, all of whom were handed their degrees by NYU President Andrew Hamilton. During his speech to a crowd of around 100 PEP students, professors and family or friends, Hamilton noted how the ceremony — which took place at the prison — was different from the typical spring commencement at Yankee Stadium.
“I can congratulate each student by name,” Hamilton said. “With over 10,000 students, it would take us all day to do that.”
The class size is one difference of many. Hamilton pointed out in his speech that, while NYU first-years may take for granted their opportunity to receive a college education, PEP graduates certainly do not.
“Most people cannot afford or gain access to such a prestigious university,” now-graduate Jeffrey Grimes said in his speech. “PEP makes that possible.”
PEP students’ experiences bring more than an appreciation for their education. NYU Professor of Sociology Jeff Manza, who taught a semester in the PEP in 2015 and another this summer, said students at Wallkill have a perspective those at NYU’s Washington Square campus lack.
“In Washington Square, a lot of my class is spent trying to teach students how inequality works,” Manza said. “Here, at Wallkill, students already have a deep understanding of inequality and so we have richer conversations.”
For Padilla, his experiences and education while incarcerated have encouraged him to fight against the oppression, injustice and discrimination of marginalized communities. Having been released, Padilla plans to enroll in NYU in the fall to pursue his B.S. in Political Science and work as a grassroots organizer or politician.
“The social structure in this country is designed the way it is for a reason, to keep people from being successful while struggling to survive,” Padilla said in his speech. “Continue to move forward with education. Do not allow for an error in your life to dictate who you are to become. Education will open doors you never knew possible.”
Education is more than a path to greater opportunities for PEP graduates. Grimes said it was a way for him to escape from dark times while incarcerated. One week, he said he had six papers due in the days following a period in solitary confinement.
Rather than a cause of stress, the papers were a welcome distraction for Grimes.
“It kept me grounded, it kept me positive,” Grimes said. “It kept me out of a negative environment.”
Another of the graduates, Rayvon Gordon — who has also written for The Wallkill Journal and other publications — spoke to the impact of professors in the program, who make the two-hour trip to upstate New York twice a week.
“The professors, staff, everybody,” Gordon said. “Their support, love, it was genuine looking forward to helping me get a better education.”
Gordon graduated high school in 2003 and received 48 credits from the City University of New York, Queensborough College, before dropping out to raise his children. Like Padilla, Gordon and Grimes have been released since graduating. So were Darion Alls and Jonathan Salgado, two graduates who did not attend the ceremony on Monday.
Graduate James Keno is the only one yet to be released — but he was still in good spirits at the ceremony. Keno joked in his speech that, while attending a previous graduation, he “made the fatal mistake” of telling his wife, Sheila, that he wanted to be on the stage. Sheila encouraged him to enroll and has backed his educational efforts ever since.
While enrolled in PEP, Keno said he had times when he was ready to give up, but his wife’s support helped him keep going.
“He wanted to do it but got discouraged sometimes,” Sheila said. “My mom used to say ‘I go to work, you go to school,’ so that’s what I told him.”
Keno hopes to use his degree to find employment and support his family upon graduating, saying being older than the other graduates means he’s less likely to continue schooling. No matter what graduates do after reentry, Hamilton hopes PEP will prepare them for it.
“Hearing the words of these four, you could hear from them how tough it was to study in an environment like this. The program helps them in focusing their minds, their ambitions while here and focusing them on their pathway once they are released,” Hamilton told WSN. “It’s absolutely what NYU should be doing.”
For Gordon, above all, Monday’s ceremony was about enjoying what came from his hard work.
“I’m ecstatic, this was an amazing experience for me to come back and share this,” Gordon said. “I love it all, I’m just living in the moment.”
Email Victor Porcelli at [email protected]