Nearly 7,500 students received their associate degrees from Bakersfield College in cavernous Rabobank Arena last May. Seventeen students were similarly honored in a modest, linoleum-floored multipurpose room Wednesday at Kern Valley State Prison west of Delano.
Which event represented a more profound exhibition of pride and gratitude? It has to be a toss-up.
Anthony Cintron, one of two student-inmate commencement speakers, expressed that gratitude in the simplest of terms.
"Thanks for taking a chance on us," he said, glancing in the direction of BC President Sonya Christian.
He thanked his BC instructors for "calling us by our first names and talking to us like people."
And then he turned to his classmates, the first graduating cohort of Bakersfield College's inmate education program. "My fellow Renegades, remember what we have done here today."
Peter Soto, the other student-inmate commencement speaker, and a summa cum laude graduate, spoke of the transformative power of an education. He told of translating a classmate's essay "from Spanish to Spanglish and then from Spanglish to English. And look at him now — on the dean's list."
Inmate Colin Randolph of Los Angeles, who said he has a parole hearing scheduled for 2021, acknowledged that his community college degree will play well with the parole board. "Absolutely — but even if it doesn't," he said, "it means a lot to me. It changed my life."
Then he walked over to BC geology teacher Laurie Munger and gave her a hug. "You're a very awesome teacher," he told her.
Inmate Rico Bell, from San Bernardino, earned an associate of science degree with a focus on math, his third community college degree, he said, since going to prison 27 years ago at age 16.
"This program changed my frame of mind," he said. "I was able to see things more clearly. I'm making better decisions. I was a troubled kid who stuttered. Now I give speeches. This elevated me."
He, too, goes before the parole board in 2021.
Brant Choate, director of the state's Division of Rehabilitative programs, told the audience he met with a succession of California community college presidents and they all expressed interest in touring a prison or offering classes. Then he talked to Sonya Christian. "It was different when we met," he said. "... She told me, 'We're here to serve the entire community.'
"And four years later we have Men in Black," he said, gesturing to the 17 black-robed graduates, who immediately broke in to cheers.
"I can't help you with the physical liberty," he told the graduates, "but you've been liberated in the most important way — in your mind."
Shannon Swain, superintendent of the state's Office of Correctional Education, urged the graduates to greet each other in the prison yard with three words of encouragement: "Don't stop now."
By a show of hands it was evident that more than half of the audience members drove more than three hours to be at Kern Valley. One, a small, beaming woman named Maria Gazcon, drove all the way from Indio. Her son, Rene Gazcon, walked up behind her after the ceremony and gave her a squeeze. "This is all for her," he said.
In addition to the 17 new BC graduates, another 17 inmates received their high school equivalency diplomas from the Kern Valley Adult School, and 21 others were awarded certificates or other honors.