Since he was sentenced for assault three years ago, Christian Burch has edited the prison newspaper, tutored fellow inmates and sold graphite portraits he drew while earning an art certificate.
His next goal is a bachelor's degree in communications, which he expects to receive through Ohio-based Ashland University shortly before he is released in 2021.
"I thought I was going to waste away for five years," Burch said recently after a graduation ceremony at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater, where nearly 200 inmates were recognized. "Things like this really give us hope."
The four-year degree program began last year as part of a national experiment called Second Chance, which allows inmates access to federal Pell Grants for the first time since 1994.
Inmates at Stillwater, Shakopee and Moose Lake can earn a bachelor's via tablet technology, the Pioneer Press reported. Second Chance also pays for two-year degree programs from three Minnesota community colleges at three prisons.
Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said improving prison security is his No. 1 priority in the wake of a Stillwater officer's killing last year, but education comes next.
"We do want to make a significant investment in education," he said.
He and first lady Gwen Walz attended the graduation ceremony, he said, "to reinforce that it is a priority."
The recent ceremony began with a playing of "Pomp and Circumstance" as inmates in blue caps and gowns shifted in their seats.
The first lady greeted the crowd with the familiar cheer of a teacher: "Good morning, students!"
Family members posed for photos.
Lauri Mitchell drove from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to see her son Anthony Mitchell, serving a prison sentence for killing his teenage girlfriend in Maplewood in 2013, receive an art certificate. His pencil and watercolor pieces were sold at a prison art exhibit last year, she said.
"The educational opportunities are pretty incredible considering where he's at," she said.
Each day, around 2,400 Minnesota state inmates spend six hours in an education program.
Last year, the number of offenders earning a post-secondary degree outnumbered those earning a high school credential, 611 to 587.
The state says around 73 percent of offenders have a high school diploma or equivalent, and those who don't are required to earn one before seeking a prison job.
"There's a strong link between education level and recidivism," associate warden Victor Wanchena said.
Carlos Sessions said he earned an associate's at the Oak Park facility and hopes to join the four-year degree program soon.
He used to work an industrial job at the prison but took a pay cut from $2 to $1.50 an hour to tutor fellow inmates.
"This is how much I value education," he said. "It widens your perspective."
Sessions is serving a life sentence for killing an 83-year-old woman during a south Minneapolis burglary in 1998, but he gets his first hearing before the parole board in 2025.
"When you walk out of these doors, you have all these marks against you," he said.
He said the education he's gained behind bars gives him hope he can leave his past behind him.