George Abaunza, Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Mount and a professor in the Hudson Link program, congratulates the more than 40 recent Hudson Link graduates on June 21. Photo by Angela James Photography.
Hudson Link for Higher Education, in partnership with SUNY Ulster and Mount Saint Mary College, hosted a joint commencement exercise at Shawangunk Correctional Facility on Wednesday, June 21, 2023.
Thirty-three students earned their Associate of Science from SUNY Ulster, while an additional 11 graduates became the first group of Bachelor of Arts graduates in Social Science from Mount Saint Mary College at Shawangunk Correctional Facility.
The event featured a keynote address from SUNY Chancellor John B. King, who previously served in President Barack Obama’s cabinet as the 10th U.S. Secretary of Education and as president of The Education Trust, a national civil rights nonprofit which seeks to identify and close opportunity and achievement gaps for students from preschool through college. He shared with students, “While you may have made mistakes in your past, you do not have to let them define you. You have accomplished something amazing that, when you first walked through these doors, you might not have thought possible. It may have seemed that society had given up on you but know that we at SUNY have not and are so proud of you for graduating. Through education, anything is possible. Please remember that you can make a difference and can and will show the world you are more than your past.”
SUNY Ulster began offering an associate degree at Shawangunk in 2016, and this is their largest graduating class at the site to date.
“As a SUNY forerunner, we are proud to do this important work in the most secure maximum-security prison within the New York State Department of Corrections,” said Alison Buckley, Ed.D., SUNY Ulster President. “Commencement was a moving testament to the power of education. I was thrilled that SUNY Chancellor King joined us to recognize a cohort where 88 percent of our graduates received honors or high honors.”
The SUNY Ulster student address was delivered by Willie S.: “We are here today because each one of us decided to defy the odds,” he said. “We are here today to announce to our family and friends that we did it. All indicators point to education as the key to success; we have one set of keys in our hand with this accomplishment.”
In 2020, Mount Saint Mary College began offering a pathway to a Bachelor’s degree at the prison to those that have already completed their associate degrees. This marks their first graduating class at the facility.
“Mount Saint Mary College is proud to see its mission realized in the accomplishments of our Shawangunk students,” said George Abaunza, Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Mount and a professor in the Hudson Link program. “Each of them is a testament to the value of higher education and its effectiveness and relevance. Each is proof that what education offers is nothing less than a pathway to fulfillment, perhaps even redemption.”
During the ceremony, Biesheem P. represented the first Bachelor’s graduating class.
“As we continue to grow, our light will get brighter and brighter,” he said. “And as time passes, hopefully, this same light will illuminate the cynics, and they, too, will begin to see beyond our bad choices to see the determination of men, who, despite their shortcomings, are pushing and striving to be better individuals. We are an example of that paradigm shift. There is a difference between who we once were and who we are striving to become.”
Both colleges partner with Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, an organization formed in 1998 to address the fundamental lack of access and opportunity available to people looking to use the transformative power of higher education to change their lives during and after their involvement with the justice system. Twenty-five years later, the organization will be awarding its 1,000th degree this year and continues to provide college education, life skills, and transitional services to currently and formerly incarcerated people, equipping them for greater economic and social success.
“We could not be prouder of this graduating class of students and to have such incredible partners in this work,” said Sean Pica, Executive Director of Hudson Link. “The challenges our students face while obtaining their degrees during incarceration often seem insurmountable, but this group persevered. By earning a college degree, we know they will be equipped for a second chance at success.”