They entered the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla years ago, emotionally wrung out by tragedy, criminal convictions and prison time.

But Courtney Addington, Eleonoara Igova and Guadalupe Barragan now proudly carry degrees, professional certificates and burgeoning respect from their community.

Using the education gained through the Merced College Rising Scholars program at CCWF, they’ve created for themselves what had previously only seemed accessible to anyone but them.

They created hope.

“Without the education and rehabilitative groups offered here, we would have been doomed to repeat our patterns,” Igova said.

Barragan added, “It makes me feel human when the professors are in front of me explaining and taking their time with us.”

Last month, Addington, Igova and Barragan were among 16 CCWF inmates to graduate from Merced College. All three show how education is the way out for incarcerated women.

Addington took her success a step further, becoming one of just 31 graduates from the entire Merced College Class of 2023 to earn Superintendent’s Honors, with a 4.0 GPA and 60 completed units. (Joining her in that feat was Patrick Wollett, an inmate at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla.)

“Without an education, I would not have healed,” Addington said. “Most of us women come in here with no self-esteem. … Education has shown me I’m worth something.”

We take a deep dive with these Merced College alumnae because the population of incarcerated women has grown six-fold since 1980.

Jennifer Leahy, herself a former inmate, is now a criminology professor in Merced College’s Rising Scholars program. She also teaches at Fresno State, overseeing their Project Rebound prison education program.

“We remove obstacles for Project Rebound and Rising Scholars students,” Leahy said. “After we do that, they can move on and be successful. There’s also that stigma of ‘Once one, always one.’ We are changing that rhetoric to ‘Change is possible.’”

At CCWF, the second largest women’s prison in the U.S., Merced College educates the most incarcerated women in the country.

“We’re aiming to establish an academic culture at CCWF, and that means we have to see a transformation in how the students think,” said English professor and Rising Scholars faculty coordinator Jennifer McBride. “We have to combat sexist messaging that our female students may have internalized. There’s so much power for women in saying, ‘I am a scholar. I am a thinker. I can be a leader.’ That’s what they get out of Rising Scholars.”

None of these women came to CCWF ready to hit the books.

“When I first got here, really, my main thought was that there was clearly something wrong with me and that I wanted to change,” said Addington, 35.

Igova, 45, said she was confused when she first arrived.

“It was a complete culture shock for me as a first-time offender,” she said. “My focus was survival. It wasn’t education.”

Barragan, 37, was too busy thinking about her crimes and sorting through emotions.

“I was convicted of first-degree murder, so I was the perpetrator,” she said. “I was willing to kill and die for my [street gang] and friends. Then those people testified against me.

“I was very remorseful for my crimes. I also have a daughter, and I felt guilty about leaving her. I felt angry, betrayed, lonely. … I had all these emotions and no coping skills. I had to find my identity, because I was broken.”

They began to see themselves—and the world—differently when they went to class.

“I believed I was stupid, worthless, that I would never succeed or do well,” Addington said. “But I took a face-to-face class and saw the teachers were so understanding of where we were coming from. I learned why I struggled. Then I found out I had dyslexia. I learned how to study and take notes. I did well in my first two classes, and I couldn’t believe it. It pushed me forward.”

Igova had to gain control over her anxiety before she was ready for school.

“I had no one to talk to,” said Igova, who is a native of Bulgaria. “It took me a while to see how I was doing the same thing over and over with the same [negative] results. … In this environment, I found education and found myself.”

Barragan said she would never have been able to share her story without Rising Scholars.

“I started using education to cope with daily stressors,” she said. “It gave me hope.”

Their curiosity was unleashed, as well.

Addington experienced an epiphany after learning that microscopic viruses like smallpox, measles and the flu, brought to North America by Europeans during the colonial era, wiped out 90 percent of Native Americans.

“It was the first time I really understood how a small change could have a huge impact,” Addington said. “I related that to myself. … There are tons of people here who now want to go to college just because they’ve seen us walking back from class so excited.”

Igova credits psychology professor Michelle Greenwood, acting director of Rising Scholars, for motivating her with humor.

“She showed us how important it was to be the boss of our own brains and make positive decisions,” Igova said.

Barragan made a connection with Leahy, who, in a previous life, was a fellow “LWOP” (Life Without Possibility of Parole inmate).

“I know that most people are against us, but she is someone who fights for us and believes in second chances,” Barragan said.

Addington earned associate degrees in Psychology and Social & Behavioral Sciences, as well as a transfer degree in psychology. She wants to eventually earn a Ph.D. and work as a therapist, to “help people like me, to prevent them from going to prison, and once they’re out, to stay out.”

Igova also earned associate degrees in Psychology and Social & Behavioral Sciences, as well as transfer degrees in both disciplines. She wants to become a therapist, possibly in marriage and relationships.

“We all need therapy,” she said. “We all need to heal. … I speak for myself when I say my new addiction is to serve others and continue my education.”

Barragan earned a transfer degree in sociology. All three women also earned a certificate, called an IGETC, indicating they’ve fulfilled all CSU general ed requirements.

Barragan, who works at CCWF as a dental technician, had already earned that certification through the California Prison Industry Authority.

“I want to work with juveniles who have been involved with gangs and experienced addiction,” she said. “I want to help troubled kids in broken homes. I’m an ex-gang member and former drug addict. I felt like no one understood me when I was young. I can connect and relate to them now.”

The women at CCWF laughed together, sharing how they teased their instructors, “Why do you want to be in here with murderers and convicts? Aren’t you scared?!”

The Merced College instructors may have been at one point, but they got over it. After all, their work is vital. They’re helping women to lift themselves up.

“It’s less about how they apply academic theory and more about seeing them gain an ability to find solutions in their lives,” Leahy said. “Every time I walk into CCWF, there’s hope. … I used to be overwhelmed with how hopeless life seemed, but I don’t feel that way now. Teaching these women lifts my soul in such a way, I can’t even explain it.”