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Student Makes The Most Of Time Behind Bars, Finishes College With Honors

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Commencement speakers offer graduates a range of sage advice from different perspectives. This graduation season, Dr. Anthony Fauci has talked about lessons from the pandemic. Ruby Bridges has shared her wisdom from the civil rights movement. And at one school, a speaker and graduating student shared his personal story of success after a decade in prison. Here's NPR's Elissa Nadworny.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Writing a graduation speech is a tricky task. Should you be funny or sincere, tell a good story? For Yusef Pierce, a graduating senior at Pitzer College outside Los Angeles, the job was a bit more challenging. He didn't have a template or Internet.

YUSEF PIERCE: I had to struggle, like, trying to compose this speech because, you know, being inside, I can't really refer to other graduation speeches.

NADWORNY: When Yusef says inside, he means inside the California Rehabilitation Center, a medium-security prison. It's from there where he's been taking college classes.

Y PIERCE: Can you hear me?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I can hear you.

NADWORNY: His spring course load included a class on feminism for men, microeconomics and one on mass incarceration.

NIGEL BOYLE: Is everybody there? Are all 11 students there?

NADWORNY: Yusef shares his Zoom square with 10 other guys, all in blue uniforms at those classic classroom desks where the chair and the table are attached. NPR producer Lauren Migaki and I have been listening into classes all semester.

BOYLE: I'm going to give you all a pop quiz now.

NADWORNY: Part of Pitzer's Inside-Out program - college classes with both traditional students and incarcerated ones.

BOYLE: Hey, Yusef. So we're just going around asking everybody what they're looking forward to in the next seven days.

Y PIERCE: Hey, I'm looking forward to doing a lot of homework.

BOYLE: Every professor wants a Yusef in your class.

NADWORNY: That's professor Nigel Boyle.

BOYLE: You know, you want that sort of student who's bright, does the work but is also helping to bring on the others.

NADWORNY: Yusef is in his early 30s. He writes poetry and paints. In a recent exhibit of his paintings online, Yusef wrote this in his artist's statement - quote, "oppression often requires that individuals make themselves extraordinary in order to simply survive." He's a deep thinker who dreams of a future in academia.

Y PIERCE: I think I want to be an instructor, and I feel like there's probably a place for me to be an instructor for incarcerated people once I do attain my Ph.D.

BOYLE: So he wants my job. And (laughter) he'd be much better at it than I am.

NADWORNY: Nigel serves as Yusef's adviser and mentor and, in one class, a graduation runway model.

BOYLE: I'll do a minor fashion show here now.

NADWORNY: Nigel backs away from his camera to get that full body shot, showing off his own cap and gown.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Beautiful, beautiful.

BOYLE: He doesn't know this. So it may be a slight surprise, but, Yusef, you will also be receiving these cords.

NADWORNY: Nigel drapes dark-orange cords across his shoulders.

BOYLE: These cords are for students that graduate with honors in their degree. So congratulations, Yusef. You are going to graduate with honors.

(APPLAUSE)

NADWORNY: The story of how Yusef wound up in these college classes, wound up inside prison at all starts with trauma. When Yusef was a teen, his older brother was shot and killed.

Y PIERCE: He was murdered in the front yard of our home right in front of my face. So I had to call my mom and let her know what had happened.

DROCHELLE PIERCE: And that had a traumatic effect on all of us.

NADWORNY: Yusef's mom, Drochelle Pierce, remembers Yusef at that time.

D PIERCE: It was just - you know, just kind of one thing after another. He got into a little bit of trouble. He allowed people that he associated with to kind of influence him in a direction that really wasn't him.

NADWORNY: He finished high school, but in his early 20s, he was arrested and convicted of armed robbery.

D PIERCE: I tell you, honestly, I never envisioned that Yusef would ever go to prison - never, never, never.

NADWORNY: Drochelle says she was beside herself when she learned his sentence would be nearly 20 years. A few months into that sentence, she wrote him a letter. Focus on the future, she wrote. Get an education. These days, they talk on the phone nearly every day. And learning is at the center of that connection. When Yusef was young...

Y PIERCE: I would ride around in the car with her. She would always have these really heavy, like, sociological books. And she wouldn't let me turn on the radio. She would make me read to her.

D PIERCE: Oh, I made them read everything because if they read it out loud, I knew they were reading it.

NADWORNY: At first, the classes Yusef took in prison were just a means to an end. In California, college classes can shorten a prison sentence. But by the time Pitzer College started offering classes for a bachelor's degree, Yusef found he really liked college.

Y PIERCE: To know that somebody was really my stuff and that somebody felt like the things that I was thinking about were worth something. I got really addicted to that validation, and it just really turned me into an overachiever. And I just took class after class after class.

NADWORNY: That compulsion - it paid off.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

Y PIERCE: Congratulations to the class of 2021.

NADWORNY: After many drafts, Yusef's final graduation speech streamed live to hundreds of Pitzer graduates and their family and friends. It was all about that letter, the one his mom sent him all those years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

Y PIERCE: I realize now that I've saved this letter because it was meant for me way back then to share with you all today. It reads, (reading) dear son...

NADWORNY: He's delivering the speech dressed in his white cap and gown, draped in a kente stole in the prison classroom he spent so much time in. The bulk of the letter he reads is a poem, one he knows by heart. It's called "Invictus."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

Y PIERCE: The poem was written by a man named William Ernest Henley. (Reading) Out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul.

D PIERCE: We were all crying. My son, my daughter and I - we were just - and it was just so sweet, you know?

NADWORNY: Mom Drochelle watched at home on her laptop with family gathered around.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

Y PIERCE: It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll. I am the master of my fate. And I am the captain of my soul.

D PIERCE: The master of my fate and the captain of my soul. I love that so much. I sent that to my son because I wanted him to think in terms of, OK, here you are. Now, what happens to you from this point going forward really depends on you. And look what he did. He turned a bad situation into something very, very positive. And, I mean, 'cause here he is graduating with his degree.

NADWORNY: Drochelle says she's watched the speech about a half dozen times. And there's one line she keeps coming back to.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

Y PIERCE: I want to dedicate this degree to my mom and all the other moms out there. Truly, we are nothing without our mothers. Again, congratulations to the class of 2021. And thank you.

NADWORNY: Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF OF WATER'S "BEYOND EXPLODING STARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.