York College students at NCCW look ahead: Exploring the next chapter

York College students at NCCW look ahead: Exploring the next chapter

By Chrystal Houston, York News Times

YORK — As the first cohort in the Second Chance Education Program at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women (NCCW) prepares to graduate, the next cohort is gearing up to start its journey.

Twelve students have spent the last three years working toward an associate’s degree from York College, offered through on-site instruction at NCCW. It is the only such program in the state. One student was released prior to finishing her degree, but the other 11 are set to graduate in August.

For soon-to-be graduate Michale Dixon, the benefits of her York College experience are already apparent. After learning about how ‘elevator pitches’ can help land a job from Assistant Professor of Business Tim Lewis, Dixon employed the lesson in a real-life setting and found success. Motivational speakers visit the prison regularly and Dixon introduced herself to the most recent guest with a firm handshake, a synopsis of her work and education, and a word about her future plans. The speaker was so impressed, he gave her his email address and a promise that when she graduates, he will introduce her to some of his contacts. “I know somebody who would love to give you a second chance in the home health care industry,” he told her.

Dixon beams from ear to ear when she tells this story. “I’m living proof that education works, that YC works,” she said. “Because of York College and Mr. Lewis, I’ve got an opportunity.”

The timing of this opportunity is perfect for Dixon, as her sentence will be fulfilled soon after she completes the York College program. She plans to follow up with the speaker, and his contacts, as soon as she is released.

Not every student in the Second Chance Education Program will have Dixon’s opportunity to find a job and build a life outside of prison. Some of the inmates earning their degrees are serving life sentences. However, the program is just as valuable to them. “It’s a great partnership and program that affects the whole facility,” said NCCW Warden Angela Folts-Oberle. “It has changed the culture here because of the leadership the students provide at NCCW.”

One such student is Niccole Wetherell, who has become a leader within the program. She recently helped to organize a teacher appreciation day for the YC faculty members and NCCW staff who have made the Second Chance Education Program possible.

“You made us feel like humans again,” she told the assembly, which included both the current and upcoming cohort. “We understand how society sees us. There are stereotypes that we are not smart, or can’t learn. You made us feel better about ourselves and helped us to achieve. I want to thank each and every one of you who took time out of your busy lives to come out here and give us this knowledge.”

New cohort members, who were in the audience, had only recently found out they were selected for the program. As they listened to the other students and faculty share memories during the appreciation event, they looked equally intimidated and excited.

Wetherell encouraged the new students. “The faculty wants you to succeed and we want you to succeed...We will be here for you,” she told them. She also gave them some important advice. “It’s okay to quit. But only for five minutes. And never during a class.” Wetherell hopes to continue with school and earn a bachelor’s degree in business, possibly online.

President Steve Eckman also addressed the audience during the appreciation event. “This has been a long journey for all of us,” he told the graduating cohort. “Don’t let the transformation stop. Who you can be is much more than you are even now.”

He reminded students that they will always be a Panther, even after they graduate and that the faculty will be an ongoing resource once they are released. As he does with on-campus students at the end of each semester, Eckman offered the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24-26: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

Eckman shook hands with each of the new students in the new cohort as they received their welcome packets. “You are about to embark on one of the most exciting times of your life,” he promised them.

The Second Chance students thanked the York College faculty for going above and beyond in their instruction. They were especially thankful to Stacie Turnbull, assistant professor of agriculture, who taught a plant science course that blended NCCW and on-campus YC students. While it was extra work to transport students from the YC campus and process them through security at the prison twice a week, the experience made the hassle worthwhile.

“The interaction between students in the blended class environment was meaningful,” said Turnbull, as NCCW students pushed the on-campus students to work harder and showed them what life is like from a new perspective.

For the NCCW students, the interaction with the on-campus students demonstrated they were not ‘less than’ because of their incarcerated status. “The campus students helped me face some fears that I didn’t even know I might have,” said Rose Glaze in a reflection at the completion of the class. “I was able to mingle among ‘normal’ non-criminal adults that allowed me to feel at ease, just as a ‘normal’ person could.”

For some NCCW students, it was a surprise when they found they had something to give. “The experience with the on-campus students has given me the opportunity to learn from them, as well for them to learn from me,” said Bridgette Mann.

At the end of the class, a group of the blended students reflected on their commonalities and discovered that they were more alike than they had previously considered. “We are not as different as people may think,” they said in a written statement. “We have all done things that we regret. We all listen to music. We watch the same news. We all take the same plant science class. We all live in York. We all have curfew. We are all human. We are all chasing a degree.”

Dr. Erin DeHart, professor of education, was also recognized by the NCCW students during the appreciation event for the impact she’s had on the students. She and Dr. Shane Mountjoy, YC provost, co-taught a history class on World War II and the Holocaust at NCCW. DeHart arranged for a Holocaust survivor to visit the NCCW campus to meet with the women and talk about her experiences -- a lesson the women say they will not soon forget.

DeHart also leads an extracurricular book club at the prison. The group has met twice with plans to meet two more times before the NCCW students graduate. On-campus education majors visited the facility to take part in the book club as well.

“The book club is a platform for education majors and the NCCW students to meet together and discuss what we’re learning from the books we are reading together. It allows us to share our perspectives. NCCW students are able to feel a connection with their fellow students and share their important views and experiences. For my education majors, it allows them to interact with people who are valuable humans who have experienced the power of transformation and rehabilitation, but who are people who tend to be forgotten or demonized by society. I want education majors to learn to appreciate all people. And anytime that students want to read and discuss books that integrate with experiences and current events, I’ll do anything to make that happen,” explained DeHart.

Dr. Terry Seufferlein, who has been a vocal advocate for the Second Chance Education Program since its inception, closed the appreciation event with a prayer. In addition to asking God to bless the students in the program, he was also filled with thanksgiving for them. “Thank you for the friends we’ve made at NCCW who have made us better people,” he said.