'Tired of not making my mama proud': 9 inmates at Waupun Correctional Institution receive degrees

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WAUPUN, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Milwaukee native Robert Alexander just wants to make his 'mama' proud.

"I spent a lot of portion of my life not being what my mother knew I was," Alexander said. "Tired of not making my mama proud."

The 42-year-old is serving a prison sentence at the Waupun Correctional Institution for a string of felony crimes that will see him incarcerated until 2030. Instead of being discouraged by his fate, Alexander took it as an opportunity to educate and change himself for the better.

"Corrections. You can't have correction without having education. It's impossible," Alexander said. "There's no better thing to do with your time in prison than educate yourself."

Alexander is one of nine inmates to receive a bachelor's degree in biblical studies with a minor in psychology from Trinity International University, an evangelical Christian university based in Illinois.

Founded in 2017, the program, paid for by the Wisconsin Inmate Education Association, allows inmates to earn their degree free of charge inside the prison walls. The class of 2022 is just the second graduating class.

"I hope we keep doing this year in and year out," said TIU President Nicholas Perrin. "As long as there's a demand for inmates who want this education, we want to be there for them."

The inmates had to meet the same requirements for admission as any other student who elects to take classes at TIU, and they partook in a full four-year program that saw them endure the daily challenges of learning inside a prison setting while also having to navigate challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The hardest part of this, I got to be honest, was the pandemic portion," Alexander said. "First of all, you're in prison. Just because you going to school doesn't mean the prison system is going to be easier for you just because you decided to get an education. That's difficult. That two-year period where we really couldn't engage with some of our professors the way we would have liked to...I'm a person who learns through conversation. A lot better through conversation. So that was really difficult."

Despite those challenges, Alexander and his classmates persevered, something Wisconsin Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr says is an accomplishment they should be extremely proud of.

"This program costs nothing for the state taxpayers, costs nothing for the persons in our care to participate in it. It's a great partnership that is a positive for both Trinity International University, the Wisconsin Educational Inmate Association and the Department of Corrections," said Secretary Carr. "It's a life-changing event for these men that are participating in these programs."

As for Alexander, he plans to further his education and receive his bachelor's degree in psychology. He hopes to one day work in alcohol and drug counseling or marriage counseling.

"Drugs play a major role in some of the heartache we see with so many people now," Alexander said. "A lot of the things that I got into myself, which ended up landing me in prison, drugs and alcohol were a catalyst."

Until then, he hopes to inspire his daughter, nephew and sister who are all currently in school, and smile at the fact that his mother is proud of his achievement.

"To see the pride in her face, that was like my 'yahoo'  moment, you know?" Alexander said, tears forming in his eyes. "Seeing her see me do something that she knew I could do? Yeah. Just too long and coming. Too long and coming."

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