A cap and gown, a celebratory cake, printed programs, congratulatory speeches — in many ways, it felt like a typical graduation ceremony.
But the graduate being honored on March 24 at Tillamook Youth Correctional Facility was far from typical. Stephen K. was celebrating something he achieved while incarcerated. When he first entered custody seven years ago, he had zero high school credits. Yet at this event, he was marking the completion of a bachelor of science degree in management and leadership from Portland State University.
And he’s not done. Without a break, Stephen immediately plans to begin classes through PSU toward a master’s degree in global supply chain management — making him the first Oregon Youth Authority youth to enroll in a master’s program while in close custody.
“My new tomorrow is a master’s program, a release date, and a dream that is still shrouded by the unknown, but one that I will chase relentlessly, because the truth is that right here, today, this feels great,” Stephen, 23, told the crowd in his graduation speech. (Watch his entire speech: https://youtu.be/rjZpvw2AUcA.)
When he entered adult county jail at age 16, Stephen only had sporadic home schooling from his mother. He earned his GED while in county jail, and went on to finish his high school diploma in 2012 while in OYA custody at Tillamook Youth Correctional Facility’s Trask River High School.
Stephen went on to earn his associate’s from Portland Community College through online courses, then transferred to PSU for his bachelor’s. Stephen and other OYA close-custody youth who are enrolled in college take all of their courses online using computers at their facilities.
Several of Stephen’s mentors from PSU, whom he had never met in person because they had only interacted online, came to his graduation ceremony. Family members, current and past OYA staff, volunteers, and even some former OYA youth were also in the crowd.
Before the ceremony, Stephen pulled out a guitar — an instrument he learned to play while at OYA — and performed a song he had written. The performance was for a smaller group of well-wishers, but when it came to the larger ceremony, Stephen asked for all of the youth from Tillamook YCF and Camp Tillamook to be in attendance. He spoke directly to them in his speech.
“All of you young men out here today, I asked you to be here because whether you know it or not, you have kept me on the straight and narrow,” he told them. “Every day that I see you guys overcome your struggles, big or small, I find the courage to face my own.
“Now I have bigger dreams — a new tomorrow. I know where I’m going, and I just have to get there.”