Graduates, faculty, administrators, family and friends celebrated an extraordinary achievement in the face of extraordinary adversity at the Mt. Tamalpais College graduation at the Chapel on June 24.
The graduation was both the first in-person ceremony since 2019 due to disruptions driven by COVID-19 and the first since MTC became the only independently accredited liberal arts college entirely within a prison in the United States.
Valedictorian John Levin told the graduates, “You and I may be here at San Quentin because of our worst decision, but we are here today because of our best decision.”
Levin reflected on the challenging times that he, his fellow graduates and the MTC faculty have faced. He pointed to their commitment, dedication and compassion, and noted their refusal to be deterred from MTC’s mission of life-changing educational achievement.
“This is such an important day for our graduates,” Warden Ron Broomfield said in opening remarks. “It’s an important day for your families and in light of the last couple of years it is an important day for San Quentin as well. I am very proud of each and every one of you.”
Students and faculty worked under challenging conditions to earn their diplomas during the pandemic. In particular, the prison has frequently been on modified programs because of virus outbreaks over the past several months. The disruptions have made it difficult for both faculty and students to consistently pursue educational programming.
On May 3, classes were temporarily cancelled for some students when several residents from West Block tested positive for the virus. Shortly thereafter, the rest of the prison’s housing units also went on quarantine, causing a temporary suspension of classes.
Some students had to make up final exams the evening before the graduation ceremony, while others will complete coursework in the summer and fall. The graduation ceremony was in doubt until the day it was held.
The event was hosted by Dr. Amy Jamgochian, MTC’s chief academic officer. The day brought together inside and outside communities to commemorate the accomplishment of the graduates, who earned an Associate of Arts Degree in Liberal Arts. It was the first time since 2015 that family members were allowed in the Chapel area where the ceremony was held.
Broomfield told SQNews that he was excited to be able to gather with the graduates’ families and that he expects to do it again.
The ceremony began with the processional entry of the graduates to the loud applause of their guests. In his opening remarks, Broomfield gave a “five-cent history lesson” about the inspirational and under-appreciated life of George Washington Carver.
He encouraged the graduates with Carver’s words: “Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom to our people.” Broomfield then challenged the graduates to consider Carver’s wisdom. “Who are your people? Who are you going to lift up?” Broomfield asked.
Chan S. Park, 56, one of 20 graduates at the ceremony, reflected on his accomplishment. “The lockdown does not matter to me. What matters is having the experience of finishing something I started 38 years ago,” he said. “To finish anything is a great feeling of victory.”
Park was accepted into the University of San Francisco and was accepted into Project Rebound, a college assistance organization, with a full scholarship. However, because he was denied parole by the Board of Prison Hearings he will have to reapply to USF at a later date. He said his greatest hope is to win his freedom and continue with his education.
In attendance was Dr. Theresa Roeder, Ph.D., chair of the MTC Board of Trustees. She commended the graduates for their determination and for not giving up under the circumstances that they have faced.
“We were hoping to have more people to come, but in terms of numbers of graduates we are sufficient,” said Roeder. “We hope to continue doing what we are doing and to serve our students better.”
This graduation was also a scene of reunification. Graduates, family members, and friends took pictures in the Chapel’s garden area and socialized after the ceremony.
Graduate Robert Taylor was able to hug his sister Donna Hearner for the first time since before the pandemic. “It makes me very proud to see him again,” said Hearner, “I love to see how they mingle and being able to have all this.”
This was not Taylor’s first A.A. degree. “The experience is different compared to having to do it through the mail, being that the students at MTC get to interact with their teachers and students. This makes the process more personal when there is the human connection,” he said.
Christopher Rene Marshall, Sr. was not sure if he was going to be able to graduate, due to COVID-19 protocols. He was concerned not only for himself but for his peers. “Now it is a relief and I will feel better when I get that diploma,” said Marshall, who plans to work toward a Master of Fine Arts degree when he is released.
Formerly incarcerated Tommy “Shakur” Ross, class valedictorian of 2019, joked about being the “longest reigning valedictorian in the history of Mt. Tam.” He said the critical thinking skills he developed in college helped him make human connections with former and currently incarcerated people during an international prison radio conference in Norway.
Ross talked about the understanding the graduates have gained of the important role that a college education plays in making them more successful citizens in their community, and in reducing recidivism.
Current valedictorian Levin expressed gratitude to MTC for allowing him “to feel that sense of safety and purpose once again in prison and for the privilege of surrounding myself with like-minded individuals, equally knowledge-thirsty and possessed of a shared desire for self-betterment.”
Pat Mims, formerly incarcerated San Quentin resident, alumnus, and now MTC Board of Trustees member, said he was thankful for being able to speak to “my family, my brothers.”
Mims was released from prison in 2009. “I had 200 bucks … after 20 years. I didn’t know what I was going to do at that point, I didn’t know where I was going to go … but I knew one thing: I had a degree, the clothes on my back and the idea that I can succeed,” he said.
Mims is currently director of Reentry Success Center, the reentry hub operated by Rubicon Programs that serves all of western Contra Costa County. “I help people like us to reintegrate into society,” he said.
He challenged every incarcerated person to “love each other, whether you are Black, you are White, you are Latin-X, you are AAPI, whatever. Love one another because together you’re very strong and that’s what community is about.”
Mims reminded everyone, “At all times stay hungry because you never know if it’s the last time you will see your brother again. It’s not guaranteed.”
MTC President Jody Lewen closed the ceremony. “What a miracle it was to see everyone here today,” she said. “How in the world has it been possible to achieve what this community has achieved?” Lewen thanked the speakers and everyone for being mask-compliant.
Community Resource Manager Madeline Tenney expressed appreciation for the teamwork that made the event possible and made it possible to get family members back inside of the prison. “At the end of the day, it was a nice day to see the graduation happen,” said Tenney.
Graduate Edward Moss proudly reflected on his journey. “I feel like I accomplished something important that has given me a sense of knowing that whatever I put my mind to I can accomplish, regardless of all the obstacles I encounter,” he said.
—Miguel Sifuentes contributed to this article.