Thursday, June 20, 2024

Ex-Prisoner/NPEP Student (Bernard McKinley) Earns Well-Deserved Acceptance to Prestigious Law School | WATCH

*Bernard McKinley is proof that hard work pays off. Even in prison. The 39-year-old, who went behind bars at age 19, is making history after his December 2023 release by being accepted into the prestigious Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in Chicago.

The achievement is notable personally and professionally for McKinley, the first person from the Northwestern University Prison Education Program (NPEP) to be accepted into any law school. The Guardian notes the 4% acceptance rate for the School of Law. As a result, McKinley enters a new phase of his life without the weight of his past hindering him from making his dream of being a lawyer a reality.

“Just months ago, I was still behind prison bars, and not knowing exactly how the future of going to law school would turn out. So to be home and know I’m going to law school … is an amazing feeling,” he told the Guardian.

McKinley’s entry into law school is the result of years of hard work that goes back 22 and a half years to the start of his prison sentence. While incarcerated at the Statesville Correctional Center in northern Illinois, he earned his bachelor’s degree last year via the NPEP. The Northwestern program is noted for being among a handful of US-based efforts that offer a college-level education to incarcerated people.

Bernard McKinley - screenshot
Bernard McKinley – screenshot

McKinley and his classmates represent the NPEP’s inaugural class. Overall, the program featured 20 incarcerated students. Graduates from the class are the first incarcerated students to receive a bachelor’s degree from a top 10 US university, rankings from US News & World note.

Although he always wanted to go to college, McKinley’s criminal sentence of nearly 100 years in prison after being convicted of a gang-related murder was a notable roadblock.

“I was already passionate about trying to go to college, I just didn’t know how or when that would happen,” he said.

As he spent time in prison, McKinley’s higher purpose called as he started to study the law to gain knowledge to appeal his case and help others serving time to overcome their legal problems. Once he obtained his GED and paralegal diploma behind bars, McKinley’s focus centered on continuing his education, by applying and being accepted into the NPEP program. Despite making the cut, taking political science, and thermodynamics, among others, and pushing through the COVID-19 pandemic, prison life was hard to avoid.

“At the end of the day, the prison still has a negative social dynamic and to be able to block all that out and focus can be challenging,” said McKinley, who studied late at night or “five, six in the morning.

Though it all, McKinley stayed focused. Reflecting on his experience, he mentioned how transformative the NPEP program was in elevating himself.

“It allowed me to reflect on who I thought I was, who I wanted to be, and where I wanted to go,” he said, adding that classes taught him how social ills, such as systemic racism, manifest in society.

Nowadays, McKinley is making his mark as the first person in his family to attend college, particularly seeking further education in a school of law. With that comes the hope of becoming a civil rights lawyer and opening his own legal aid clinic to help other marginalized communities.

“It feels amazing. I’m definitely a positive role model for the future generation and my family. So you know, I have a job to do,” he said noting the responsibility that comes with coming far from where he was with his accomplishments.

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