The stage was set inside the gym at the Tennessee Prison for Women Friday. Purple and gold accents decorated the stage. It was a graduation ceremony that, for the graduates, was a long time coming.
"When I got the reception letter, at that instant it was like I knew my life had changed," said Barbi, an inmate.
Barbi has been serving time for robbery. Eleven years ago, she joined Lipscomb University's LIFE Program, which has provided inmates with college degrees by taking one class a semester. On Friday she received her bachelors degree in business.
"It's just a moment when you know there's always more at work than you can see," program director Kate Watkins said. "We believe because education changes people, that people who encounter people that are educated get to be changed as well."
On the podium, each graduate shared a glimpse of their personal story. While their circumstances may not be ideal, the work they put in to becoming a college graduate set an example for all.
"We know that people who complete any amount of college courses, post secondary education, they have a 40 percent less likelihood of returning to prison," Assistant Commissioner of Rehabilitation for TDOC, Ed Welch, said.
Some inmates will never leave the walls of the prison. Nonetheless, they can now call themselves college graduates.
"Whether they're here or whether they're not here, education matters because they matter, and they're worthy of education," said Watkins.
Friday's ceremony was the first time inmates were awarded bachelor degrees, meaning they had to complete 126 undergraduate credit hours.