Patrick Wollett graduated from Merced College on Thursday, May 18. He heard his name called, heard the cheers from his family and instructors, received congratulatory handshakes from dignitaries, and celebrated afterward with his classmates and loved ones.

Wollett received special recognition at Thursday’s ceremony, having earned the lofty Superintendent’s Honors by maintaining a 4.0 GPA with at least 60 units completed. He was also chosen by the English faculty of Merced College as the program’s Outstanding Student.

It sounds like the typical story of an all-star student and a distinguished Merced College graduate, with one exception: Wollett is an inmate at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla.

Wollett was one of more than 140 students who graduated Thursday in a robust and festive ceremony to honor inmates who had earned associate degrees, high school diplomas, GEDs, and Career Technical Education certificates through Valley State Adult School, including dozens who received associate degrees from Merced College by way of the Rising Scholars program.

The inmates dressed in traditional graduation regalia, marched to Pomp & Circumstance, and were feted by administrators, instructors, fellow inmates, and family members.

“Education is about progress, not perfection,” Merced College President Chris Vitelli told the graduates. “I encourage you to think about what’s next. What will you work on after this degree? What will you do tomorrow to take advantage of this opportunity?

“You are a Merced College graduate. We expect big things from you, beyond just today.”

Wollett certainly has big things in mind.

Building on the associate degree in English that he just earned from Merced College, he’s also working toward a business degree and hopes to eventually continue his education at Cal Poly or Fresno State.

Wollett has been incarcerated since 2007 and has been at Valley State Prison since 2016, after serving nearly a decade at California State Prison, Corcoran.

“In grade school, my teachers all said I was smart, but didn’t have a lot of drive,” Wollett said. “Then I got in trouble in high school. I learned the hard way that I was wasting my life.”

Although Wollett is currently serving a life sentence, he said a change in the law could allow him to be released early. If he is able to get his sentenced reduced, which he hopes will happen in the coming months, Wollett could find himself back in the free world, benefiting from the educational opportunities he admittedly squandered as a teenager.

However his story turns out, Wollett is a different person today because of education.

“I have a new frame of mind, a growth mindset, with positive intentions,” he said. “My life is not stagnant anymore. I want to be a blessing to those around me.”

For Valley State Adult School, which offers academic programs to inmates by way of Merced College and other educational institutions, Thursday was a special day. Multiple graduation ceremonies had been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so graduates from several years were being honored. The result was the largest class Principal Wayne Tilley had seen in his 15 years with Valley State.

“People don’t realize we have a fully accredited school here,” Tilley said. “We hold students to a very high standard. You can and should be very proud of these students.”

Several Merced College instructors were in attendance at Thursday’s graduation. The college’s Rising Scholars program began in 2016, and expanded to include the Central California Women’s Facility in 2017. The women’s prison will celebrate its first graduation ceremony on May 25.

Led by Professor Jennifer McBride—who Wollett credited with pushing him to become an English major—the Rising Scholars program offers more than 25 courses to over 500 students, and also provides services and resources on campus to students who were formerly incarcerated or justice-impacted.

At Thursday’s ceremony, many students graduated with multiple associate degrees and with high honors, including recognition by the Alpha Gamma Sigma honor society.

“This is the culmination of your educational journey,” Vitelli told the graduates. “It has been challenging, and you’ve had obstacles to overcome, but you’ve proven you can achieve whatever goals you have.

“I routinely hear from faculty that you are some of the most serious, dedicated students we have, and that’s because you understand the value of what you’re doing.”