WARREN — Abdi Awad is an unlikely graduate of the University of Maine at Augusta’s class of 2016. He not only had to learn the college-level course material behind the proverbial prison bars, he also had to simultaneously learn the English language. His studies were done without referencing the internet, without dedicated study times in dedicated quiet rooms, and without time off work and prison life to cram and prepare.
Now, because of his dedication to his Associate of Arts degree in Liberal Studies, this Somalian, who hails from a culture allowing for four wives to every man, claims to be a staunch feminist. He has honed skills as a public speaker, and he has philosophized the deeper meaning of the Holocaust.
On Wednesday, June 15, Awad stood in front of family, UMA faculty, armed guards, and 16 fellow graduates as he received the Perseverance Award along with his degree.
The money for that degree was made possible by Doris Buffet and the Sunshine Lady Foundation. Her $2 million donation to the prison allowed these inmates to go to college.
“You’ve pushed this prison into moving forward into a future,” one inmate said to Buffett.
Another spoke of the division of conversation topics heard among the 900 prisoners, many of whom applied and were turned down from the program due to limited space.
“I could be walking to dinner and hear the people behind me talking about drugs, and the college students in front of me talking about philosophy or psychology,” the inmate said.
Each graduate earned a GPA of at least 3.25, a quarter point higher than the minimum average required to stay in the program.
The letter grades, however, pale in comparison to the greater benefit each grad spoke of during his time at the lectern. For them, the education has been life changing.
“Before I came here and started this program, I was lost,” one person said. “I didn’t know who I was. I was a prisoner. I was an inmate. I really had no hope for the future. Then I entered this program and it completely changed who I was. It’s given me an identity. No longer do I see myself as that of an inmate or a prisoner. I am now a UMA graduate.”
Another took the courses not for himself, but to bring back honor and dignity to his mother. Others were forced to think beyond themselves, to question the deeper meaning, and to look forward to a new future.
“I refuse to be merely a recipient of this gift,” one person said to Buffet. “I pledge to you that I will continue to pay it forward for the rest of my life.”
One statistic stated during the ceremony is that 95 percent of inmates will leave the prison at the end of their sentence. Sixty-five percent of those who leave will return.
“Not from this program,” Deborah Meehan, director of University College of Rockland, interjected.
A poem called Dropping Keys by Hafiz
From Iran and Persia 1352
The small man builds cages for everyone he knows
While the sage, who has to duck his head when the moon is low, keeps dropping keys all night long
For the beautiful, rowdy prisoners.
According to graduate Leo Hylton, the small men represent self-imposed limitations. The sages who duck their heads are the professors entering the prison through the steel doors.
And “we are the beautiful rowdy prisoners.”
Sarah Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.