Handlon Students Mark First Milestone at Convocation 

Date Published

April 1, 2017

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Published by Calvin Seminary

“You’re running against yourself,” said Ronald Feenstra, academic dean and professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary. Addressing a crowd of students at the Handlon convocation ceremony, Feenstra charged students to resist the temptation to compare themselves to others around them, and to instead focus on knowing their abilities and pushing themselves to do their best. “We are all running against ourselves. Not our professors. Not each other. Ourselves,” insisted Feenstra. “But we also do not run alone.”

Though Feenstra’s message is universally applicable, the address had a particular weight given that the recipients were inmates. Comparison can be crippling in any sphere, but certainly when one is living behind prison walls.

A year and a half ago, the first cohort of twenty students from the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, MI, began the process of earning a bachelor’s degree in ministry leadership through Calvin College and Calvin  

Theological Seminary. The Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI) is a five-year program, and these students have just received a certificate for successfully completing one and a half years of their education—one of three major milestones along the road to earning the B.A.

“This makes another crucial step in the process,” said president of Calvin Theological Seminary Julius Medenblik, who welcomed the students and faculty to the convocation ceremony. As provost Cheryl Brandsen called their names, the students continuing their second year stepped forward and received their certificate.

After earning their certificate, the qualified second year students are looking forward to earning their associate’s degree in another year and half. After that, they’ll reach for the final milestone, the bachelor’s degree. 

“We take these classes seriously,” said Rafael, a first year student. “We all learn at our own pace, but we are committed and we do learn.” 

Currently, thirty-seven students are enrolled in the growing program. Last year, the first convocation was held in the visitors room; this year, students and faculty had to meet in the more spacious gymnasium.

According to the staff at Handlon, as the program grows it requires more effort on their part to monitor visitors and activity around the facility. But Corey Traylor, a resident unit manager at the prison for the past eighteen years, noted how this effort has paid off.

“Misconducts have gone dramatically down. Arguments among inmates have gone down. These guys are like minded individuals and they support each other,” said Traylor. “They get incentives, and there’s positive pressure put on them now that they’re students.”

“There’s been a 180 degree turn- around in the way [the inmates] conduct themselves,” said Maurice Williams, a guard at Handlon for the past four years.

Not only has negative behavior decreased, but positive repercussions have already begun spreading from the prison and into the surrounding area. “These guys want to help. They put together a math and algebra program for local elementary students that they tutor, and they’re expanding their curriculum to include a geometry program soon.”

René and Armondo, two second-year students enrolled in CPI, have even started growing their hair out. “We want to donate to Locks of Love,” said René. “It’ll take two years at least to get ten inches, and we want to wait until everybody’s hair is ready so we can all donate at the same time.”

Arthur, a first year student, attributes some of the new energy to the faculty who “pump positivity” into the students whenever they teach. But it’s not just the students that benefit from the teaching at Handlon.

“It’s invigorating for the faculty,” said Elizabeth Vander Lei, Academic Dean at Calvin, who works closely with selecting professors for teaching at Handlon. “Where does our Calvin mission live out any more than it does here?”

Though CPI aims to equip inmates with degrees, the program’s influence is much larger than a certificate on paper.

“This is about helping individuals who have fallen to get back up and make a difference in society,” said Kenneth McKee, the Deputy Director of the Correctional Facilities Administration for the State of Michigan. “Behavioral issues are basically non-existent. The first year class has a GPA of 3.55, and the second year class has a 3.65. That’s impressive, and these students are dedicated.”

“[This program] is like the hand of God coming in and touching us,” said Valmarcus, a first-year student. “There is nothing more fulfilling than living out your purpose. CPI helps us live that out.”

Though they study and take tests in a different setting, students enrolled in the CPI program are proud of their Calvin identity.

“So, what’s going on at the Knollcrest campus?” asked Arthur. 


By Jonathan Gorter 


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