What’s Next?

A chance at an education is life changing for students in the N.C. Higher Education in Prisons program at Campbell

By Sarah Swain

Ive attended dozens of graduations, including my own Campbell commencement, which took place on a very hot day in May in Academic Circle. Each graduation day is special, full of excitement and anticipation. Families filling Gore Arena and cheering as their students file in.

Sarah Swain

Part of my role at Campbell is to welcome our newest alumni into the Alumni Association. I’m usually behind the scenes at graduation and have the opportunity to talk to the graduates as they’re lining up, taking selfies with friends and fixing their cords and gowns. I enjoy asking the million-dollar question …

What’s next?

Graduation day, Aug. 31, 2021, was different. I was nervous.

This graduation would take place at Sampson Correctional Institute, a medium security prison where Campbell’s N.C. Higher Education in Prisons program launched two years prior. COVID-19 and security measures limited the number of guests who could attend, but I was hopeful I’d be able to. Behind two wired gates, escorted in by armed guards, I got to meet our students for the first time. It was surreal, really, and in its own way was filled with the same excitement as the other Campbell graduations I have attended.

I watched the room and took it all in. A lot of it was familiar. University faculty wore their regalia, Campbell academic banners were placed throughout the room and graduation programs listed each student’s name.

But the differences couldn’t be ignored.

For the first time in years, these men wore dress clothes instead of their brown prison jumpsuits. They stood tall in their graduation gowns, and their smiles displayed a sense of accomplishment. They walked with dignity and pride.

Still, I was nervous. I desperately wanted to talk to the men whose essays I had read and academic successes I had written about in grant proposals.

I knew their work, but I didn’t know them.

What would I even say? How could I ask, “What’s next?” to students who would remain incarcerated for several more years?

How short-sighted that was of me to think only in the immediate “here and now.” What these students are working toward — in addition to their degrees — is an improved and better “what’s next,” not only for themselves, but for their families. Studies have shown that children who have had a parent in prison are three times more likely to go to prison themselves. The impact of incarceration is generational, but so is the impact of a quality education.

Click above to see the Fall 2021 feature on Campbell’s N.C. Higher Education in Prisons program.

Campbell offered that.

I started working on funding for this program in December 2020. The program is 100-percent operated by University and donor funding. Incarcerated individuals earn $1 a day working in various jobs within their facilities and cannot pay tuition. Campbell started this program with the generous support of the Bob Barker Company Foundation, the Sunshine Lady Foundation and the John W. Pope Foundation.

As the students thrived while working on their Associates of Sciences in Behavioral Sciences, they, too, were asking, “What’s next?” Again, Campbell stepped up with an answer. We currently have 10 students working on their bachelor’s degree, a new cohort of 14 in our Associates program and a new site location is set to launch in January 2023.

Until Aug. 31, 2021, I had not met these 11 students, but working in philanthropy allows one to become an advocate, in their own way. I get the opportunity to advocate for these students, this program and for Campbell. Education proves to set a transformational path for those who take advantage of it. These men are making the most of this opportunity and making their own path to “what’s next?” and I’m proud to be one of their many advocates. 

By the way, I did get the courage to introduce myself to them. We talked about their time within the program and what they enjoyed most about it.

And thankfully, I got to welcome them into the Alumni Association, as I have at so many Campbell graduations before this.


Sarah Swain is assistant vice president for alumni engagement at Campbell University and a 2005 alumna. Swain was instrumental in securing funding for the N.C. Higher Education in Prisons program at Campbell and continues to work to expand the program at Sampson and throughout the state.