On June 24th, a bright and sunny day, Mount Tamalpais College hosted its first graduation ceremony since achieving independent accreditation. This date also marked San Quentin’s first college graduation inside its Chapel in over seven years.
Twenty MTC graduates finally got the opportunity to tout their hard work, dedication, and success, and walk across the big stage inside the walls of San Quentin.
When I graduated in 2012, my family walked across the compound, sat next to the concrete fountain, and I was able to splash water on my grandson D’Angelo.
In 2015, all family members and guests were barred from entering San Quentin.
Since then, San Quentin has been struck by legionnaires, norovirus, and just recently COVID-19. Some students passed away. Other students were paroled or transferred to other prisons while dealing with those year-long, on and off lockdowns.
And during this period, all outside family, friends, and guests were barred from prison visiting rooms and/or compounds throughout the state of California.
Since 2015, the Prison University Project, now Mount Tamalpais College, has been holding its graduation ceremonies inside San Quentin’s tightly cramped visiting room. Graduates would walk across the visit room floor, pretending to cross an auditorium’s big stage.
This year, students didn’t have to pretend to walk the stage, and visitors were allowed to attend the graduation inside the chapel at San Quentin, which was a significant event after years of COVID restrictions and distance from loved ones.
As the guests arrived and settled into the chapel, you could sense the excitement from the San Quentin guards, graduates’ families, and MTC staff and faculty members.
Sixteen of 20 graduates who completed their coursework between 2019 and 2022 were present to accept their hard-earned diplomas. Guitarist Lee Jasper played the ceremonial Pomp and Circumstance as the graduates entered the Chapel in a single file line, step by step.
When the clapping and cheering from the guests calmed down, MTC’s Chief Academic Officer, Amy Jamgochian introduced Warden Ron Broomfield for opening remarks.
Warden Broomfield looked directly at the graduates and said “I am very proud of each and every one of you.” MTC President of the Board of Trustees Theresa Roeder thanked the family, students, Warden Broomfield, and his staff, then turned to the students and said, “We could not be more proud of you, graduating during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.”
Alumnus Pat Mims and 2019 Valedictorian Tommy Shakur Ross both were allowed to return to San Quentin for graduation. They recalled how they too were sitting in those same chairs that these graduates sat in and shared their journeys of success with the crowd. “I love you,” Shakur said to the graduates. He reminded them, “we know each other, I just left you.” Shakur was pointing out to each graduate that “you too can be free like me.”
This year’s Valedictorian, John Levin, took the stage and apologized to the crowd. He explained that he misplaced his speech, however, it was a clever way to introduce his humor. “I’m really embarrassed, I misplaced my speech. But ever since I was a kid I believed in being prepared. So as a kid I proactively prepared speeches.”
He continued by reading a humorous list of speeches he predicted would happen in his future and read them to the crowd. “Here’s my acceptance speech for winning the Nobel prize in physics for solving Grand Unification. My Tony acceptance speech for what many will call my transcendent performance as Mr. Whiskers in the sequel, Cats2: Kitty Kitty Bang Bang.”
He then thanked MTC for allowing him to find “safety in prison and to be surrounded by like-minded people.”
As each graduate walked across the stage to receive their diplomas, applause echoed throughout the Chapel. They were asked to adjust their tassels from the right side of their caps to the left side.
The graduates, their family, and friends shuffled outside, eyes quenched from both the brightness of the sun and curiosity, searching out their surroundings anticipating a warm reception from their loved ones.
Graduate Michael Wilson Moore expressed his gratitude. “On graduation day I found friends in everyone present. My niece and her family traveled 1,000 miles to spend less than three hours watching me walk across the stage in a cap and gown.”
Before the ceremony concluded, Jody Lewen told the crowd as well as the students that one of our guiding goals has always been to make sure MTC provides the highest quality education, at least as good as you would get in any other college or university on the outside.
She went on to call MTC students a “gravitational pull” in support of making sure higher education is possible.
John Levin told his fellow 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. And I commend each of you for staying the course.”