CLINTON — Kevin Cook battled nerves and the graduation tassel that swung in front of his eyes as he spoke on behalf of his 10 classmates in front of the small crowd that gathered for the first commencement ceremony for Campbell University’s prison teaching program at Sampson Correctional Facility on Tuesday.
But he brushed those nerves — and the tassel — aside to deliver a message on resilience, something he and the prison’s Class of 2021 needed a lot of to get through the two-year program while not only dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, but the many other challenges brought on by life in a prison environment. From small hurdles like lack of internet access and sometimes limited access to supplies to larger obstacles like resentment from other incarcerated men and those against the idea of educating convicted felons — Cook said it took resilience and the support of many to make Tuesday’s ceremony a reality.
“We faced monumental pressure, but we rose above,” said the Greensboro native. “We’re learning from our prior mistakes, and we’re achieving amid the chaos fostered by our current environment. To each of you involved [in the program] … you’ve left an indelible mark on my life and have inspired me to reach for the stars.”
Campbell issued 11 associate of science degrees to the 11 men who were part of the first cohort of students in a program launched by the University, the Bob Barker Foundation and the North Carolina Department of Public Safety in 2019. The program’s goal is to educate convicted offenders and provide degrees that would not only lead to future employment and long-term careers, but also significantly reduce the recidivism rate for incarcerated men in the state’s prison system.
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The associate of science degree program places an emphasis on preparing the men for admission into a four-year bachelor’s degree program that will help them succeed after their release. It emphasizes academic rigor, faith development, critical thinking, writing, math and other life skills to encourage them to lead productive lives.
Bob Barker (’64), whose Bob Barker Company produces the world’s largest inventory of detention facility supplies and whose foundation was created to reduce recidivism and prepare men and women for successful reentry into society, served as the commencement speaker on Tuesday. Barker called the ceremony “historical” and the men “trailblazers.”
“And we hope many more will follow in your footsteps,” he said to the group of 11 men, who were seated in front of about 20 others who are currently in their first year of the program. “What you’ve done is show everybody that a college degree can be earned in a prison environment. The state legislature believes in this program and has given us the funds to extend it to a four-year program. Had you not succeeded, I don’t think we would have gotten that support. Be proud of the work you’ve done. A lot of people are counting on you.”
Dr. Rick Smith, the director of the Sampson Correctional Institution campus, said he believed in this group and recalled watching them tear into new books and resources the moment they were provided.
“You were excited for new information,” he said. “I watched you use torn up envelopes for study flash cards when index cards weren’t available. I knew early on we had something special. I had high expectations for you, and you took the opportunity you were given and ran with it.”
President J. Bradley Creed spoke of restoration as an important theme in the Judeo-Christian mission.
“We’re here to educate students to live lives of meaningful service,” Creed said. “This has been our prayer from the beginning of this program. As I look into the eyes of these students, I’m confident we’re succeeding. I know how difficult this has been. I know who your professors are. And I know you’ve earned these degrees.”