May 21, 2021 | Matt Kucinski

A photo montage of 11 men in caps and gowns who graduated from the Calvin Prison Initiative.
Eleven '20 and '21 grads share about their Calvin University education behind bars and their future aspirations.

In 2015, Calvin University, Calvin Theological Seminary, and the Michigan Department of Corrections set out on a venture called the Calvin Prison Initiative. It was a first-of-its-kind program in the state of Michigan—one that provides inmates with a chance to earn a bachelor’s-degree from Calvin University behind bars. The goal of the program, which is funded entirely by private donations and grants, is to improve prison culture and curb recidivism rates by equipping prisoners with an education.

On Saturday, May 22, 2021, the first two cohorts—the Class of 2020 and the Class of 2021 CPI graduates—are officially receiving their bachelor’s degrees. While a few graduates have been paroled, most remain behind bars, many serving life sentences. However, through the Calvin education, moral and spiritual formation has taken place, shaping the CPI graduates’ minds and hearts. And it hasn’t stopped there. It’s overflowing and beginning to change the prison culture: illuminating the dark places and restoring hope.

Eleven graduates from the Class of 2020 and Class of 2021 share about their experience in the CPI program, and what they hope to do with their Calvin education.

What is your single greatest takeaway from the CPI program?

Armondo Benavidez ’20: It’s given me hope that I can be more than my worst mistakes. Even in a hopeless environment I now have the tools to help reroute the downward spiral that hopeless prisoners tend to get pulled into.

Ryan Colter ’20: It helped me to refind myself. From the moment you are arrested and throughout your time in prison, you are treated as a number and not a name. A thing and not a person. A crime and not a human being. This program came into prison and reminded me I am not “something else” I am a child of God. In prison, life can get dark. Calvin helped to bring the light back into this dark place. They have helped to give meaning to time spent wasting away.

Bryan Noonan ’21: My Calvin education gave me hope for my future and a vision for God’s purpose for my life. I’ve always been hopeful but now my hope has authority behind it. God’s redemptive purpose for humanity and creation includes me and motivates me to see my own place in carrying out God’s plan of restoration.

Eric Boldiszar ’20: If I had to boil it down to one thing, I would say hope. Prison is a place in which all hope is but extinguished. Calvin has given me a hope for the future. Not that I know what the future holds, but that I know my life will not end in emptiness. Calvin has helped me find purpose in my life, and this purpose, or hope, allows me to not worry about the future, or despair, but live well in the present, finding ways to help others and advance the kingdom of God.

Why is it important to offer a Christian liberal arts education behind bars?

Valmarcus Jones ’21: A Christian liberal arts education is different from other education in that it enables transformation from the inside out, not just an increase in head knowledge. This helps students to be more effective citizens in whatever community they are in. It also instills “hope” in prisoners.

Benavidez: I believe the importance lies within the goal to encourage morality and spirituality within education, which is quoted in the Calvin University motto “to think deeply, act justly, live wholeheartedly for God.” This combination has the power to awaken anyone who has fallen asleep to God’s Kingdom.

Arthur Cayce ’21: Many people who come to prison missed the chance to evolve into someone different from their environment. By having a chance to become a product of a religious college, allows those fallen to evolve into a person everyone, including themselves, can be proud of. Lastly, why not? Wouldn’t an environment where love and education reigned supreme be the best course for rehabilitation? I THINK SO!

Daniel Pirkel ’21: This is an investment in not just individuals, but entire communities in and outside of prison. God wants to redeem all of the world, which is impossible if we ignore our biggest messes.

How does it feel to be a college graduate, a Calvin University grad?

Tony Kerr ’21: Proud. Earning this degree has been the most challenging accomplishment I have ever undertaken, and I am proud that I was able to achieve it. I am also proud that I will forever be under the aegis of the prestigious Calvin University name. Every inmate who embarks on this journey transforms from being just a number in the Michigan Department of Corrections to a Calvin University graduate.

Noonan: I feel honored and humbled to be a Calvin University graduate. I am most proud to be able to show my kids that I worked hard to give them a reason to be proud of me.

Willie Chappell Jr. ’21: I am not only lost for words, but I feel grateful to be a part of a movement that will have a ripple effect for future lives. This has given me hope for my future and confidence to serve others.

Colter: For years I took education for granted. After not being able to continue my education, and now being able to be a college grad is an awesome feeling. Add to that the knowledge that you are an Alum of one of the, if not the, best Christian Universities in the world is awe inspiring!

Now what? What do you hope to do with your Calvin education?

Kerr: I hope to have the honor of officially applying my education and experience to mentoring people out of the dark world of addiction. For the remainder of my sentence, I also intend to use the knowledge and skills I acquired in CPI to proclaim God’s grace (unmerited favor) to whoever will listen, helping to bring other inmates back into right-relation. One day, when I am released from prison, I will seek to preach the word of God, hopefully on a global scale.

Mark Urban ’21: I would love to go plant churches throughout the MDOC, and upon my release, across the state. I simply want to fulfill my calling to preach and teach the Word of God.

Boldiszar: I hope to continue to draw closer to God as he guides me in the direction of my life’s purpose—to help my brothers, whether it be through teaching, mentoring or preaching. Although my life has not turned out as I intended, God has given me a choice: whatever should happen in any particular circumstances, my ultimate purpose is to actively engage in finding ways to help others. Even though my hopes and dreams may never be fully realized, this will remain my highest calling.

Shawn England ’20: I hope to show people who have lost hope that God is at work in our world, especially in the darkest of places. I want to show them that change is possible and life can be fulfilling even in here.

Anything else you want to add?

Noonan: The greatest part for me of my CPI participation was the kindness and compassion of the professors and staff. It felt profoundly refreshing to be treated with dignity and respect and to be reassured that God still loves me and has a purpose for me, now and in the future.

Benavidez: Thanks to every kind soul who has blessed me with their presence. I believe the genuine kindness that radiated from everyone involved with the CPI Program is what broke my barriers I’ve held in place for too long. Afraid of who I would become has made me suspicious of everyone until I met so many good people who cared.

Cayce: Only a change of heart can really change the mindset of prison staff, society, and inmates to want the best for everyone around them. When society fails to see the benefits of rehabilitation instead of punishment, society misses out on numerous people who are hidden gems. Allowing for redemption should not be above the human heart, but should be key in looking at other people who have struggled in our society.

England: The CPI program has helped to make me more human. It has imparted a more comprehensive sense of personhood to my sense of self.

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