Lee Wexler

“I have my cap and gown with me!” Amy Stone says excitedly to a friend as she rushes into the reception room. As Stone, who is tonight’s valedictorian, makes her way in, several others hurriedly greet her. There is still work to be done: tablecloths to be laid, decorations to be hung.

Stone is not inside of a university, and the graduates don’t resemble the 22-year-olds who have just celebrated over at Barnard and Columbia University three blocks away. This year’s graduation, held on a recent Thursday, is for those who took part in College & Community Fellowship, a program that helps formerly incarcerated women enroll and finish their undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Women are the fastest-growing prison population in America, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. And black and Latina women are disproportionately represented in the prison system. About 60% of the students CCF serves are black, and about 20% are Latina. The organization, which provides academic counseling, scholarships, and mentorship to its fellows, has about a 60% graduation rate.

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The road to graduating from college was not an easy one for Stone, who was 28 years old when she was sentenced to two-to-four years at Bedford Hills, New York’s only all-women’s maximum security prison. Stone had skipped a court appearance and was out on bail when the police raided her apartment for drugs. Her boyfriend at the time died shortly after the raid. And Stone, who was arrested in the incident, found out she was pregnant with his son that morning. The charges against her for that day were dropped, but she was convicted on previous charges for grand larceny, forgery, and bail-jumping.

“That was my eyeopener,” Stone, now 40, says about giving birth to her son in 2005 while still in prison. She has another child, a daughter, who is 16 years old and lives in New Jersey with her mother. “It felt like a second chance,” she says.

A couple of instructors of a parenting class at Bedford Hills inspired Stone to think about school again. “I really started to find myself, the things I had experienced in my life through writing,” she says.

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When she was released after two years, Stone entered a transitional housing program that helps formerly incarcerated mothers back on their feet. During a conversation with an administrator at the organization, Stone expressed wanting to go back to school. “But I just didn’t know how to do that,” she recalls. “I was only a high school graduate.”

Enter CCF. “It was the answer to all my dreams,” she says.

Amy Stone, CCF graduate
Lee Wexler

Stone, who has been in the program since 2010, has completed an associate's degree and today she is celebrating her bachelor’s in Social Work. In the fall Stone is headed to Fordham University in New York City to begin their Masters in Social Work program. Right now she has a job with the Visiting Nurse Service of New York and lives with her son and husband in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. The road, she says, has been bumpy, but she credits CCF for always being there for her as a resource.

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“We have community meetings every month [where] you can bond with other women,” she says. “I’m not friends with many women,” but at CCF “the women are so genuine.”

The organization has helped more than 200 women earn 314 degrees in 14 years. “There are more and more organizations focused on this population because of the national conversation around criminal justice,” says Vivian Nixon, who has been CCF’s executive director for 10 years. “But most of these organizations do not consider higher education as a possibility for their clients, and I want to change that.” For Nixon, it’s personal. She was released from prison in 2001 and completed the CCF program in 2004.

According to CCF, more than two-thirds of incarcerated people are rearrested within three years of their release. The organization says a way out of this problem is higher education. But there are very few in-prison education programs after the Pell Grant—federal money given to students who students who need financial assistance—was cut for incarcerated populations in 1994. And after release, CCF says the formerly incarcerated face other barriers to higher education like checkboxes for criminal history on college applications.

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The graduation begins with this year’s graduates walking down the aisle. Friends, family, and coworkers clap and cheer the 13 women on as “Pomp and Circumstance,” the classic graduation song, plays in the background. But that’s where tradition ends.

Lettisha Boyd, CCF’s academic counselor hands out academic excellence awards while holding her baby nephew in one arm. During her valedictorian speech, Stone reads aloud a poem she wrote about all the obstacles she has faced. When ELLE's editor-at-large Melissa Harris Perry delivers the keynote address, she focuses on how exceptional the graduates are for beating all the odds stacked against them.

Perry tells the crowd to turn to one another and repeat the words, “I see God in you, and I love her, fiercely.” She tells them this isn’t a traditional graduation, that these women are bucking a system meant to keep them out of higher education. It will be a tough road ahead. But today is a moment to revel in.

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Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.