Miriam Romero
Miriam Romero

Miriam Romero, of Chicago, has achieved a historic milestone, becoming the first Waubonsee Community College Adult Education female student in custody at the Fox Valley Adult Transitional Center (ATC) to earn an Illinois High School diploma certificate. This achievement marks the first in over 50 years since the opening of the Fox Valley ATC, a minimum-security female facility, in Aurora in 1972.

Romero spent seven years in a Chicago-based correctional facility and was given two opportunities to relocate and participate in the Fox Valley ATC, the only female work release program in the Illinois Department of Corrections. Seeing the second invitation as a sign, she accepted it. "I always wanted to say I got my high school diploma," said Romero.

When Romero arrived at the Fox Valley ATC in August last year, she met Fox Valley ATC Office Assistant II Jentral McWillie. McWillie observed that many women had yet to progress beyond an eighth-grade education.

"I saw an opportunity for collaboration between the Fox Valley ATC and Waubonsee," noted McWillie, who enrolled in the spring semester earlier that year at Waubonsee to advance her career in social justice. Inspired by her positive student experience at Waubonsee, McWillie requested Waubonsee's on-site High School Equivalency (HSE) Program become available at the Fox Valley ATC. This move would change Romero's life and many others.

A few conversations and a month later, a partnership was solidified and McWillie began recruiting Fox Valley ATC residents interested in starting their studies. Seven individuals, including Romero, enrolled in the HSE Program led by Sarah Melchi and Dr. Rachel Wing DiMatteo, Adult and Workforce Education Adjunct Faculty. Melchi and Dr. Wing DiMatteo provided those individuals with comprehensive math, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing instruction tailored to their unique needs and designed to help them earn their Illinois High School diploma certificate.

Miriam Romero
JenTral McWillie (left), Romero, Sarah Melchi (right)

Melchi, a native of Aurora, has been teaching at Waubonsee since 2019. She says she recognized Romero's potential from the first day of class. Melchi observed that Romero consistently had perfect attendance, a positive attitude, and a strong work ethic. "She didn't let her past affect her future," said Melchi.

During a surprise graduation ceremony at Waubonsee’s Aurora Downtown Campus, planned in March for Romero, McWillie addressed the seven residents from the Fox Valley ATC who were enrolled in Waubonsee’s Adult Education Programs. She said, "I wanted us to be away from the center so that we could properly celebrate Romero and witness what your celebration will look like when you are finished. What you're doing is monumental. Being in that classroom is a significant achievement. All of you have made history. There hasn't been a class in over 15 years, and there has never been a graduate in 52 years." McWillie continued her speech, reflecting on the transformative power of education in prison: "Romero, you are the first. When you leave here next week, you will be a historian. Walk out of that building with your head held high. That is a direct order."

A 2022 report by the Vera Institute of Justice found that women made up about 15 percent of incarcerated students, which is more than double their percentage of the U.S. prison population, but only 7 percent of the students who earned credentials in the 2020–21 academic year were women.

Residents at the Fox Valley ATC must pass a test and earn a minimum score to enroll in Waubonsee's HSE Program. With the help of counselors and support staff, all residents must seek employment, volunteer community service hours, and attend classes twice a week to qualify.

Wearing a pink cap and gown McWillie bought her to make her stand out from the graduating Class of 2024, Romero proudly addressed her peers. She paused before saying, "I haven't smiled in a long time, and all eyes are on me, so I can't stop smiling now." Everyone laughed, and then she took the opportunity to encourage her classmates, many of whom were more than halfway through the program. Romero said, "If I can do it, you can do it, too. Take the test, do it again; you're going to pass it," she said. “Ms. Melchi is there for you. You know she doesn't look at us funny; she looks at us as human beings, and I appreciate that.”

One week after her graduation ceremony, Romero was granted parole on her birthday. The impact of her achievement is far-reaching. The Fox Valley ATC Waubonsee cohort is ongoing, and joining Romero as graduates at the recent Adult Education and Workforce Recognition Ceremony held May 14 are Shamyra Stewart, Jasmine Storm, and Rhiannan Ostrom-Keith, a testament to Romero's inspiring example and McWillie's strong advocacy.

The remaining students are awaiting their exam results or are close to completing their Illinois High School certificate. Romero hopes that Waubonsee will continue to expand courses at the Fox Valley ATC to help improve the lives of incarcerated females who may not have had the same opportunities as she did. She aspires to improve the system by sharing her experience. "I'm grateful for everything I went through because it helped me mature," said Romero.“One thing they can't stop is your education, so if I can change one person's mindset and help them grow, I've done my job on earth."


Tagged As