'This is only just a stepping stone': Saguaro Correctional Center graduates class of 2022

·5 min read

Graduation at Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy was a small, but monumental ceremony for the students, teachers and staff involved.

On Thursday, 27 inmates were celebrated for their achievements in education. Each was awarded either their high school degree, associate's degree or vocational certification in a ceremony filled with music and applause.

More than 30 people, including staff and teachers, waited for the graduates to come in the visitation room, which was decorated for the celebration. As the graduates walked in, a group of inmates played music.

Six of them wore blue cap and gowns, a signal they were receiving their GED degree, one was wearing a black cap and gown meaning he was receiving his associate's degree. The others wore jumpsuits.

Inmates at the Saguaro Correctional Center perform during the graduation ceremony in Eloy on May 12.
Inmates at the Saguaro Correctional Center perform during the graduation ceremony in Eloy on May 12.

“I'm pretty excited. Pretty nervous. It's a little bit overwhelming,” Caven King said, standing in the lone black cap and gown.

Deborah Powell, assistant warden of programming at Saguaro said inmates can complete a vocational certification, pursue their GED if they don’t have one or to look at opportunities to get funds for a college education. Once they complete their studies, the center has combined graduation for all the degrees. Powell said they can have two or four ceremonies each year.

“I think with anything that we do in life, that reward at the end is just something that sticks with us,” Powell said. “And it's an accomplishment. It's our way of acknowledging the hard work that they put in.”

King, who completed his business administration degree in three years, said he studied for about three hours each day. There was always a deadline or test coming up. However, he said not having people around who knew the subjects he was studying could be challenging sometimes.

“I would have to, like, email my mom or email my sister and I'd have to wait for them to respond. And hopefully they knew what I what I was trying to say,” King said.

During the ceremony, King was called to the front as the only college graduate in this group.

Those who earned their certificates in vocational electrical and vocational persevere, which is for computer coding, stood up and everyone else clapped. Then the GED graduates were called one by one to the front to receive their diplomas.

Powell said the education helps inmates become more confident and gives them the tools to contribute to communities when they get out.

“Once they realize that they can start accomplishing those goals, they look at bigger goals, and that's what this does for them,” Powell said. “And when they come in and they pass one test, then they go on to the next test, they pass that, you can see that person become a better person, and they, because they become confident in themselves and they make better decisions while they're in here.”

During the ceremony, warden Shawn Wead addressed the graduates and said this is the aspect of incarceration that can help them get off a criminal path and realize what they can accomplish when they put their minds toward a goal.

“When it comes to your GED or your vocational certification, I want you to look back at this day and say, ‘I meant to do that,’ because you were intentional about what you wanted to accomplish,” Wead said.

Graduates: Education is 'something I'm going to keep pursuing'

Graduating inmates at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy bow their heads in prayer during their graduation ceremony in Eloy on May 12.
Graduating inmates at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy bow their heads in prayer during their graduation ceremony in Eloy on May 12.

John Kawewehi earned his GED and was elected to give a speech. In the speech, he thanked the teachers, tutors and staff who helped him make his degree possible. He said his self-confidence and self-worth were “tremendously” improved as a result of this accomplishment.

“Yesterday I was a child and prided myself in all the wrong things in life, I didn't have a clue what I wanted or which direction to walk. Slowly, but surely I found myself hitting rock bottom,” Kawewehi said in the speech. “It was only then, in the depths of my solitude, that I realized that I wanted better for myself and that I was capable of anything.”

After making people in the room laugh by accidentally cursing mid-speech, Kawewehi thanked those who helped him, were patient with him and said they made him feel like a human being.

“I'm proud to say that today I stand before you as a man driven on the continuation to a successful future,” Kawewehi said.

John Kawewehi, a graduating inmate at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, gives a speech during the graduation ceremony on May 12.
John Kawewehi, a graduating inmate at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, gives a speech during the graduation ceremony on May 12.

King also talked about the future and said he said he plans to continue his education with a bachelor’s in business administration and some day he hopes to work for somebody or be a manager at a company or restaurant.

By the end of the ceremony, the graduates turned their tassels from one side to another, which King described as a “cool” moment. After the graduation ended, they took group pictures and prepared for their reception which included food and more music to celebrate.

Despite the challenges of earning a degree, King said he feels the effort was worth it and said he was excited to see his hard work pay off.

“It's definitely worth, it's definitely something I'm going to keep pursuing," King said. "This is only just a stepping stone to where I want to get, like eventually I want to get my masters. And so this feels good ... it encouraged me and rewarded me to keep going even further.”

Reach breaking news reporter Angela Cordoba Perez at Angela.CordobaPerez@Gannett.com or on Twitter @AngelaCordobaP.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Saguaro Correctional Center celebrates graduation for 27 inmates