The first cohort of students in Northwestern University’s Prison Education Program are set to graduate next month, and when they do they’ll be joined by one of the most renowned writers and journalists in the country.
Northwestern on Tuesday announced that Ta-Nehisi Coates will deliver the commencement speech at the Nov. 15 graduation, which will mark the first time incarcerated students in the United States will be conferred a bachelor’s degree from a top 10 university.
“Ta-Nehisi is an extraordinary writer and public intellectual who has inspired change and envisioned the world not as it is, but as it could and should be,” said Jennifer Lackey, the founding director of the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP). “He is exceptionally well-suited to celebrate this profoundly significant moment for our students, Northwestern University, the Northwestern Prison Education Program and for the criminal legal system and all incarcerated people in the United States.”
Coates, a Baltimore native, is the author of books including “The Beautiful Struggle,” “We Were Eight Years in Power,” “The Water Dancer,” and “Between the World and Me.” In 2015, he received both a National Book Award and a MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant.”
He’s also worked as a journalist for The Washington City Paper, The Village Voice, The New Yorker and The New York Times, and had stints writing Marvel’s “Black Panther” (2016-2021) and “Captain America” (2018-2021) comics series.
Last fall, Coates joined Howard University’s faculty as a writer-in-residence and the Sterling Brown Chair in the department of English.
“With Ta-Nehisi Coates as their commencement speaker, our hard-working graduates will hear from a public intellectual and creative force who will inspire them to do great things with what they have learned,” Northwestern Provost Kathleen Hagerty said in a statement. “I can’t think of a more energizing voice at this pivotal moment in their lives.”
NU formed NPEP — a first-of-its-kind program that offers credits to inmates inside a maximum-security prison — in 2018, partnering with the Illinois Department of Corrections to offer the classes.
The program is available to all incarcerated men and women in Illinois who have either earned a high school diploma or passed the GED, as long as they also have no IDOC restrictions.
The university admitted its inaugural class in January 2022 and the program currently has around 100 students enrolled in both Stateville and Logan correctional centers.
NU officials have cited a Bureau of Justice Statistics study, which found that the recidivism rate for incarcerated people was about 75% within the first five years of their release. But among those who participated in a prison education program, that rate dropped by 43%.
“While we hope for each one of our students there will be a legal pathway for them to go home one day, if it doesn’t turn out that way, we want to support them here,” Lackey told WTTW News last year. “So, once our students graduate from Northwestern with a bachelor’s degree, we hope to hire some of them to be tutors here in our program, to be teaching assistants. So, whatever that path looks like for you, we want to be there to help you achieve it. There is no dream that is too ambitious for us.”The first cohort of students in Northwestern University’s Prison Education Program are set to graduate next month, and when they do they’ll be joined by one of the most renowned writers and journalists in the country.