Washington University Prison Education Project prepares for new admissions cycle

| Contributing Reporter

This spring, Washington University’s Prison Education Project will select nine to 10 people at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center to begin a process towards earning their associate degree.

Since 2014, the Prison Education Project (PEP) has given people at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center (MECC) the opportunity to enroll in any of five to six courses taught by Washington University faculty each semester, covering topics ranging from Macroeconomics to Japanese Civilization.

The program’s admissions process is extremely selective, with ten students out of sixty to seventy applicants usually being admitted into the program.

“Often, people assume that the program is a kind of community service program, when in fact it is exactly like Wash. U.” former project manager Jennifer Hudson said. “It is just Wash. U. that happens to take place in a prison. So, the admissions process is interesting because it is extremely selective. It is not selective based on people’s high school grades. We don’t even look at those records in fact, but students have to have a high school diploma or equivalent in order to apply at all.”

During the application process, PEP administrators plan to use essays and interviews to assess potential students’ fitness for the program. Applications are due Mar. 29, and the proctored essays and interviews will be held in April. Applicants are informed in early May.

“We have just sent the flyers for the PEP into the MECC campus and are hoping that they will be posted there this week,” current chair of the applications committee and English professor Victoria Thomas said. “Students have to ask their case manager for the application form which asks them to detail their educational history and then answer two essay questions which will give us a starting point when we move into the interview stage.”

According to Thomas, PEP students should have the capacity to handle a college level workload, in addition to a genuine interest in a liberal arts education.

“Ideally, we want students who are committed to the idea of a liberal arts education and see the program as an opportunity for deeper engagement with the world and society,” Thomas said. “Several of our current students are hoping to move on to graduate degrees when they have served their sentences, and we have hopes that all of our students see their time with our program as an important part of their intellectual growth. We are looking for curiosity of mind, openness to ideas and a commitment to learning. We are going to be asking for a great deal of work from these students, and we do not pretend otherwise; this is a rigorous program, and the ideal applicant is excited by that.”

For students who are not admitted into the program, the PEP will offer an alternative program which allows them to develop important skills and possibly prepare to apply in future years. Hudson says that she recommends students who are not accepted into the program participate in their reading group led by professor Barbara Baumgartner.

“Participants in the reading group read the book, perhaps give written responses to questions, and then they have a discussion once a month. And this turns out to be a great college prep tool, and also just encourages intellectual curiosity among people in the prison who are not necessarily in the program,” Hudson said. “We encourage people to take part in that if they are thinking about applying or if they didn’t get in. We have had people apply multiple times and then get in after a second or third time applying.”

Although the details of the actual admissions process will not be formally approved until the end of the month, many administrators hope to involve current students in the program even more in the admissions process this year.

“One of the most significant changes is that we are planning to add two existing students to our interview process,” Associate Director Barbara Baumgartner said. “In the past, it has just been the executive board that has done that, along with Jennifer Hudson. So, we would go out to the prison and interview them, and basically we got some input from our existing students who were interested in the process. And so, we thought it might be useful to have their input…So, they will be present when we interview the students for this next round. And I think it will be very interesting to hear their perspectives on the people who are being interviewed.”

This year, the PEP administration will undergo significant changes due to Hudson stepping down from her administrative position, and co-director Margaret Garb passing away in December. However, the future of the program remains secure with various new grants being awarded to fund the program in addition to the funding already provided by the provost’s office.

“This academic year, we also got some additional external grants,” Hudson said. “I was able to work with professor Grizelda McClelland, who is a dean and teaches in classics, and we got a grant of [$10,000] from the Onassis Foundation to offer classics in prison; so, she is teaching Greek Mythology. Then we recently secured some additional external funding. One was a large grant from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. I have been working with alumni in development in order to secure additional external grants, and I think the program is going to continue doing that.”

The PEP’s first graduating class will receive their degrees on May 22. Baumgartner hopes that will inspire the new students to enthusiastically engage in their new classes.

“It is a remarkable teaching environment,” Baumgartner said. “I am not going to say that this is uniformly true about our students, but I would say, generally speaking, the students on the MECC campus are wildly enthusiastic about learning and wanting to talk about ideas, and are really interested in mastering skills such as learning how to approach a literary text and how to respond to it in writing.”

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