There should be no barriers to education. This principle is what led the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP) to help 16 individuals behind bars in Stateville Correctional Center to obtain their bachelor’s degree.

CNBC reports that the NPEP was established in 2018 to create a better future for incarcerated students in prisons, jails, and youth centers in Illinois. According to its website, participants can engage in four educational programs, including four-to-six-week college-ready courses as well as full bachelor’s degree paths.

The ongoing efforts of the program were displayed on Nov. 15, 2023, as the class of 2023 celebrated earning their degree. This marked NPEP’s inaugural commencement ceremony, according to Daily Northwestern.

“It means everything because I’m not supposed to be here,” said William Peeples, who is serving a life sentence at Crest Hill’s Stateville Correctional Center, per CNBC.

He continued, “Best five years I ever spent. This moment is the culmination of literally 30 years of people pouring into me. Five years ago, I could not have imagined me standing here at this moment.”

Daily Northwestern shared that each of the 16 graduating students received a bachelor’s degree in social sciences, “an interdisciplinary major focused on the nature, politics and social structures of humankind.”

During the commencement ceremony, Jennifer Lackey, a philosophy professor and the founding director of NPEP, mentioned the challenges the graduates faced as they completed their studies while fully-remote due to COVID-19. Lackey also told the graduates she was moved by their accomplishments and felt it is reflective of Northwestern University’s spirit.

“It is often said that education is transformative,” Lackey explained, per the outlet. “I believe this even more wholeheartedly with each passing day in our community. But, I’ve also been powerfully moved by the way you all have transformed education. You have radically expanded what it means to be a Northwestern student. You have enriched Northwestern University in ways that will echo for decades to come. You have also profoundly transformed us, your educators.”