Research Findings

Three primary themes emerged from the data and are presented in the order of greatest increase in frequency from the application to transition essays. CPI students consistently discussed: (a) personal formation, (b) educational formation, and (c) community formation as influences the CPI had on them. The students articulated these themes in ways that were both distinct and inherently interrelated. The three concepts were commonly connected in the following way: CPI student reflections consistently described how the educational experience has affected their personal, moral, and spiritual development, and how this impact has equipped them to engage others and to build strong communities through personal service. A scries of quotes from these essays illustrate each theme that emerged from our data analysis. For each student, we provide a quote from his application material, marked as “A,” and then from his essay required for transitioning from the certificate program to the Associate degree program, which will be marked as “T.”

Theme 1: Personal Formation

The CPI seeks to contribute to students’ personal formation by helping them sec themselves as significant moral and spiritual leaders within a prison environment. Students are first encouraged to consider what is required for a person to become a moral and spiritual person, and then they are asked how moral and spiritual character equips one to become a moral and spiritual leader. It is often the case that a prison environment does not easily allow for personal moral and spiritual development, let alone for inmates to identify themselves as moral and spiritual leaders. Within the prison, inmates and employees often exhibit suspicion, if not cynicism, when another inmate claims to have moral and spiritual character or expresses the desire to be a leader in those realms. The CPI attempts to provide a space where both of these personal capacities can be cultivated among students. In order to foster moral and spiritual character, early courses focus on how students sec the world, others, and their own sense of vocation. Later courses in pastoral care, ministry leadership, social work, and counseling offer opportunities for students to practice moral and spiritual leadership.

All students in the pilot study addressed the topic of personal formation in regard to moral and spiritual leadership in their application essays, with 50 out of 57 students indicating that personal formation was an important reason for pursuing a Calvin education. By the time of the transition essays, however, all 57 students identified personal formation as a key motivation for continuing their Calvin education. It is also interesting to note that frequently students’ comments from the application essays arc quite general and lack specific ways in which the students want to develop personally and serve or help others. In contrast, the quotes from the transition essays are much more specific, identifying the need to listen to others, acknowledge the significance and need of other “voices” or “thoughts,” and that to do so contributes to a moral (and spiritual) community that can inspire, give hope, bolster self-worth, build confidence, and provide purpose. For instance, consider the following sets of quotes from one of the students:

A: “I believe God is sovereign over my life and has a destiny for me to fulfill within his kingdom ... I believe I can make a difference in the lives of people for Christ, and in turn, change my environment to the glory of God.”

T: “I recognize the power of education to not only educate and inform, but to change and form the individual both spiritually and morally. I recognize that an important part of learning is accepting that everyone has a voice and that voice is an important contribution to the discussion ... which allows me to be confident when trying to inspire others and give them hope.”

One of the differences between the first and second quotes is that the student moves from a more general claim about wanting to make a difference in another’s life to a more specific claim about how he can make a difference, namely, by way of allowing other students to have a “voice” and acknowledging another person’s contribution. Along with this acknowledgement, the claim is also made that these actions will both inspire and give hope to another.

What is also worth noting is that the specific practices these students identify, such as listening to and acknowledging the worth of the other, are not only requirements for academic success but also for the building and maintaining of moral communities. In other words, these students are connecting their personal formation to social skills for the wider prison community and beyond, recognizing that education has the potential for moral and spiritual formation. Again, consider the following:

A: “I desired this opportunity to better my education and for better insight to enrich my education, my relationship with God, and develop the skills to better serve others.”

T: “The classroom discipline has given me tools to want to really hear others’ thoughts, listen to their differences, and allow others to be themselves. I have confidence, purpose, and self-worth, something I never knew would bring change into my heart and life. The staff of CPI and students around me have nurtured me into something I thought I never could have seen or experienced.”

Here the student moves from general language about enriching his life and serving others to hearing others’ “thoughts,” “differences,” and allowing others to “be themselves.” In turn, this ability to listen without judgment provides confidence, purpose, and self-worth, identifying specific attributes in terms of his personal formation and development. In sum, students were able to move from general descriptions about what they perceived as the benefits of the program to specific ways in which they have grown morally and spiritually from participating in the program, identifying concrete features of their personal formation.

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