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Pittsfield Township — Felicia Thompson beamed with joy Monday as she received her college degree to the thunderous applause of friends, family and supporters.

Like other graduates, Thompson is looking forward to putting her college education to good use. And just as the case with many other college grads, Thompson's journey to get her degree was fraught with many ups and downs. In Thompson's case, she earned her degree while serving time behind prison walls.

"I hadn't been in college in years," said Thompson on Monday after receiving her degree. "I'm overly excited."

She was among 16 other female prison inmates who walked across the stage to receive their degrees from Jackson College officials wearing maroon and gold congratulation cap over their prison blue uniforms.

Thompson, a 42-year-old from Detroit, has served 16 years for assault with intent to commit murder and weapon charges. She is scheduled to be released next year. Thompson is working on another degree and advises other inmates to make their time behind bars count.

"Start planning for your future. Don't waste your time," advised Thompson whose mother and grandmother came to the Huron Valley Women's Prison to see her graduate. 

Jackson College president and CEO Daniel Phelan told the graduates during his commencement speech that their graduation represents a vision that it to "make sure education is available to everyone ... every day for everyone."

Phelan encouraged the graduates to "pay it forward" by going back to their communities and becoming productive members of societies through employment as a result of their new degrees.

"You're taking weaknesses and turning them into strengths," Phelan told the graduates. "You're saying 'I'm not my past.' We ask that you pay it forward by carrying the message 'You don't want to be in this place.'"

At least 900 inmates in prisons across Michigan have taken part in post-secondary educational programs, according to Heidi Washington, a director for the Michigan Department of Corrections.

The programs are federally funded through Pell grants that were reimplemented in 2015 by President Barack Obama after the funding was cut in the mid-1990s.

Thompson plans to attend law school and become a criminal prosecutor. Her mother, Beverly Harrington, smiled proudly at her daughter's accomplishment and praised the prison and Jackson College for helping make it possible.

"For 16 years, they didn't have this program," said Harrington who brought her 82-year-old mother to the graduation with her to witness Thompson's big day.

Corrine Mackenzie, a 34-year-old from Fenton, received an associate degree in arts. Mackenzie, who has served nine years of a sentence for second-degree murder, is looking to be released in 2023. She also is pursuing a bachelor's degree in social work.

Mackenzie says she would like to open transitional housing for domestic violence victims, which she says her case involved.

As the traditional graduation song "Pomp and Circumstance" played, the graduates marched into the prison's auditorium as they were cheered on by fellow inmates, family members, college staff members and prison staff.

The women were all honors and Phi Theta Kappa graduates. And like all graduates, the turned their tassels to the left of the mortarboards once their degrees were conferred. They also flung their graduation caps into the air later during a group photo of the graduates with Jackson College and prison officials.

Dakota Shananaquet, a 44-year-old inmate from Petoskey who has served seven years of a 20-year sentence for criminal offenses that include larceny from a vehicle, wants to eventually get a master's degree, preferably in accounting. She expects to be released in 2023.

Shananaquet lost her 24-year-old daughter, an Allen Park resident, in April during final exams. The daughter, Andrea Reese, died at home after falling and hitting her head in the bathtub. The graduate carried a color photo of her daughter in a suede, brown pouch around her neck as she walked into the graduation ceremony.

"I thought it wasn't possible," Shananaquet said Monday. "I kept quitting college in the world. I wasn't following through with my college dream. "

Shananaquet, a member of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, said the program helped her learn a lot about herself.

"I kept looking for a role model," she said. "This program came so I decided I could be that role model I was looking for."

bwilliams@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2027

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