On a cloudy Saturday morning, the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor buzzed with an unusual air of celebration. The atmosphere inside the prison walls was energetic and hopeful as the University of Puget Sound and the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound (FEPPS) hosted an inaugural commencement ceremony, marking a historic moment for 10 incarcerated women who completed their Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies.

A prisoner in graduation regalia carries a Class of 2024 banner surrounded by barbwire.

The WCC personnel and prisoners, along with University of Puget Sound staff, transformed the prison gymnasium into an auditorium that would honor the graduates receiving their degrees in front of their family, friends, and Puget Sound community. 


FEPPS Director and Prof. of Religion, Spirituality, & Society Tanya Erzen, and FEPPS Executive Director Alyssa Knight, have long dreamt about this day since its inception more than a decade ago. The program provides incarcerated women, transgender, and gender-nonconforming individuals with a rigorous liberal arts education.  Erzen, visibly proud, spoke at the ceremony, highlighting FEPPS' commitment to both education and successful re-entry for these graduates.


“People talk about perseverance and persistence, but you embody it,” she said to the graduates. “You finished this degree despite months of lockdown, surgeries, and unexpected losses.  You have practiced care, community, a commitment to intellectual inquiry, curiosity, and envisioning. That is the project of abolition—to ask what we can imagine for ourselves and the world. That is what you’ve been doing. You are remaking the world, moving out of the darkness toward the future you want.” 


The journey to this day began in 2012 when FEPPS was founded out of the determination and desire for learning among the incarcerated women at the WCC. Recognizing the transformative power of education, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) approved the request from the University of Puget Sound to add a Prison Education Program, which included establishing an additional location at the prison to offer the Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies through FEPPS.

Prisoner in graduation regalia sits next to a family member

During the ceremony, each graduate had the chance to speak, a moment filled with gratitude and emotion. Many thanked their families and friends for their unwavering support and expressed deep appreciation for Erzen's dedication to their success. The graduates spoke of resilience and transformation, their words a testament to the power of education in the face of adversity.


Guest Speaker and New York Times best-selling author Roxane Gay addressed the graduates by video. Her presence was requested by the graduates. Some of her books include Ayiti, An Untamed State, Bad Feminist, and Difficult Women. She is also the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel.

Other guest speakers included President Isiaah Crawford, University of California Los Angeles Prof. Kelly Lytle Hernández, and Puget Sound Board of Trustees Chair Beth M. Picardo ’83 who welcomed the graduates to the Logger community.


“Graduates, you have accomplished so much in your time as students, and we know you will continue to do great things in the future,” Picardo said. “Your achievement embodies the qualities we value so deeply as Loggers – critical thinking, collaboration and leadership, and a fierce dedication to achieving your academic and personal goals. We are so proud to welcome you as our newest Puget Sound alumni, and members of our Logger family.”


Before Provost Andrew Kerkhoff presented the students with their degrees, President Crawford concluded with a powerful charge to the graduates to embody the Logger spirit. 


"While your classroom walls may have differed, the dedication you poured into your studies embodies the true essence of what it means to be a Logger,” he said. “My faculty and staff colleagues, our trustees, and I wish you all the success that you can achieve—in whatever ways you might measure or define success—but know that we also hold a particular expectation of you: that you will use this valuable education to make a difference in our world."


The ceremony was more than a celebration; it was a statement of resilience, determination, and the transformative power of education. It symbolizes a significant step towards breaking down barriers and providing incarcerated individuals with the tools they need to succeed upon re-entry into society.


This was exemplified when Assoc. Prof. of Psychology Melvin Rouse Jr. recited the poem “Won’t You Celebrate with Me” by Lucille Clifton during his address, stating: 


won't you celebrate with me

what i have shaped into

a kind of life? i had no model.

born in babylon

both nonwhite and woman

what did i see to be except myself?

i made it up

here on this bridge between

starshine and clay,

my one hand holding tight

my other hand; come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.


For more information about the University of Puget Sound and the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, please visit www.pugetsound.edu/FEPPS and www.fepps.org.