Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Recent NPEP graduate Benard McKinley marches through The Arch after being freed from prison

Francesco Thorik-Saboia/The Daily Northwestern
After four years studying the social sciences in prison, McKinley graduated from NU in November, and was released from prison Monday. He marched through The Arch the same day he gained his freedom.

Dozens of people lined up alongside The Arch Monday, waving pom poms and clapping enthusiastically as Benard McKinley (NPEP ’23) marched through it.

Every year at Northwestern, thousands of incoming freshmen and graduating seniors “March Through The Arch” as a symbol of the beginning and the end of their experience at the University.

For McKinley, however, marching through The Arch symbolized more than his graduation — it symbolized his freedom.

McKinley served 22.5 years of a reduced 25-year sentence at the Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Ill. While in prison, McKinley enrolled in the Northwestern Prison Education Program.

McKinley was released from prison Monday.

“It still feels surreal,” McKinley said. “It felt good to finally be back home, to be at my school that I graduated from and to feel the love from everybody. It felt amazing.”

All NPEP students enroll while incarcerated and receive a four-year bachelor’s degree from NU. Students major in social sciences and take classes in anthropology, political science, psychology, and sociology, along with electives and a research seminar.

The NPEP program is highly competitive —  in 2023, it received nearly 400 applications and accepted 40 students. The admissions process includes a personal statement, a textual analysis and in-person interviews.

Classes are offered at the men’s Stateville prison and at the women’s Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Ill.

McKinley graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from NU in November. He marched through The Arch Monday — the same day he was released.

McKinley said he hopes to go to law school, become a civil rights lawyer and establish a public interest law firm.

“Benard was originally sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison,” NPEP Director Jennifer Lackey said. “So to have him here on campus, a graduate of Northwestern, with his applications to law school, it’s just such a day of celebration, joy and hope for everyone in our community. I think that many of his classmates look to Benard and see that hope is not lost in their own cases.”

Two of McKinley’s classmates, NPEP students Brandon Perkins and Jacob Currey, watched him partake in the NU tradition. Perkins and Currey were released from prison last fall and are finishing their education through the program.

Currey, who hopes to attend law school, said watching McKinley march through The Arch was encouraging.

“It’s very rewarding,” Currey said. “It’s kind of a sign of a hopeful future. I didn’t see this path before. Seeing some of my fellow classmates being able to successfully complete part of their task means a lot and helps me keep going.”

Perkins said he hopes to get an MBA and become an entrepreneur. He marched through The Arch himself shortly after being released, surrounded by friends and members of the NPEP community.

“I’ve kind of been on an educational journey since I was incarcerated,” Perkins said. “I got locked up in 2016. And my father is also in prison. I was able to get on a three-way call with him a few months into my incarceration. That was his advice to me. It was like, ‘Man, treat these years like college years,’ and so that’s really what I tried to do.”

Currey and Perkins explained the unique challenges that come with pursuing a degree while in prison. They described having limited access to computers, being unable to eat lunch due to their class schedules and having to write research papers by hand.

McKinley said it can be difficult to stay focused on education while faced with the other stressors of prison, but he said he is grateful for the experience.

“This is a rare opportunity that not everybody has,” McKinley said. “Being able to take this in and embracing it for what it is, in spite of the negative adverse experiences you might have within a prison environment, is just different.”


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