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Stateville prison inmates receive diplomas from Northwestern University

Stateville prison inmates receive diplomas from Northwestern University
Stateville prison inmates receive diplomas from Northwestern University 02:40

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A graduation ceremony like we've never seen before.

A unique opportunity for inmates to pursue higher education at a prestigious university.

More than a dozen of them got their diplomas from Northwestern on Wednesday. Some are even serving life sentences while they strive for this academic achievement.

CBS 2's Noel Brennan has the story from Stateville Prison.

"Congratulations Class of 2023."

Graduation day reminds us that education opens doors, even on a campus closed off to the world.

"It means everything because I'm not supposed to be here."

William Peeples is serving a life sentence at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, but for the past five years, he's been working toward a college degree.

"Best five years I ever spent. This moment is the culmination of literally 30 years of people pouring into me," Peeples said.

Peeples is part of a cohort of students in the Northwestern University Prison Education Program.

"Five years ago, I could not have imagined me standing here at this moment," Peeples said.

A group of 16 will be the first to earn bachelor's degrees from a top-ten university.

"It's okay. You can nod your head if that's true. We know you're history makers. That's right," Peeples said.

Sixteen graduates prove prison walls are no barrier to education.

"Twenty years ago, some of these guys were in rival gangs, you know. And here they are swapping poetry with each other."

Jennifer Lackey founded the program that's opened doors and minds.

"We love you, Ms. Lackey. All hail to the queen for this dream!"

A dream, it seems, for graduates on stage who can express nothing but gratitude.

 "Thank you, thank you, and thank you. Thank you for seeing me and for acknowledging me."

"I know everything you ever wanted from me was to be the best version of myself. So, I ask you, momma, how did I do?"

Even those who serve a life sentence find a meaningful degree of freedom.

"It's less about me and more about people's idea of who incarcerated people are and who we can become," Peeples said.

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