‘They never gave up’: 39 incarcerated individuals graduate from South Park Academy

Jun 6, 2023, 6:29 AM | Updated: Oct 25, 2023, 3:51 pm

Jose Rios-Mojica gets a fist-bump from a fellow graduate after giving an address at a commencement ...

Jose Rios-Mojica gets a fist-bump from a fellow graduate after giving an address at a commencement ceremony for incarcerated individuals earning their high school diploma at the Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City on Monday. Jose Rios-Mojica gets a fist-bump from a fellow graduate after giving an address at a commencement ceremony for incarcerated individuals earning their high school diploma at the Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City on Monday. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

(Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — It was inside the confines of the Utah State Correctional Facility that Cesia Ortiz had an epiphany.

“I realized that to be truly successful on the outside, I had to graduate,” Ortiz said. “Going home empty-handed wasn’t an option.”

This epiphany carried Ortiz through her educational journey and, on Monday, she and 38 other incarcerated individuals celebrated earning their high school diplomas and graduating from South Park Academy — the educational entity of the Utah State Correctional Facility.

The road wasn’t an easy one, either.

There were many times when Ortiz felt like giving up. When she first started school, she said she had “little to no interest” in furthering her education. She credited her teachers with helping her, pushing her, telling her to “reel it in” or “get it together” and always answering her questions.

“At first, the teachers wanted me to graduate more than I did. I was just being compliant … and I wasn’t giving school much effort,” Ortiz said. “Eventually, I started excelling by earning credits … and became very satisfied.”

These feelings of progress motivated Ortiz, as did her children.

“I think about my children often and how this new stepping stone — getting my diploma — won’t just benefit me, it will benefit all of them,” Ortiz said. “I want to be able to help them with their schoolwork, to be there every step of the way … and to show them they’re not alone. I want to provide for myself and for them.”

Monday’s graduation was the first for South Park Academy at the new Utah State Correctional Facility and the first through the Salt Lake City School District.

It was also the first graduation for the school since 2019.

Stephanie Patton, director of adult education at the Utah State Board of Education, likened the journey taken by the graduates to that of an epic story — think the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.”

“Heroes don’t become heroes overnight. Becoming a hero requires a process or a journey,” Patton said. “The journey always includes an abyss that stretches you to your breaking point, and it’s the abyss that transforms you.”

To Patton, earning a high school diploma while incarcerated was the graduate’s version of overcoming the abyss and becoming heroes.

“What I know about each one of you is that you are heroes. Despite naysayers who might’ve told you many times in your life that you can’t do it, you’ve done it. You’ve persisted and succeeded; you’ve embraced your light. Make your story an epic story of triumph and redemption,” Patton said.

Chris Sullivan, principal of South Park Academy, said that the graduates dealt with many obstacles that could’ve hindered their progress. When the Department of Corrections shifted operations from the old facilities in Draper to the $1 billion Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City, the South Park Academy was shaken up, too.

Sullivan said that in the span of 11 months, South Park Academy shut down its educational services in a facility where it was located for approximately 70 years. The school left its previous school district and moved to a new facility, where it was under a new district, new procedures and new staff.

“With all these changes and uncertainty, there were so many opportunities for our students to give up hope,” Sullivan said. “And yet, when the teachers came calling, the students started showing up. They never gave up, they asked questions, they showed up as often as they could, they took advantage of everything we offered, and they cheered each other on.”

While Monday’s graduation was a day for celebrating accomplishments, Sullivan and Patton both emphasized to the graduates that the journey is far from over.

“This is just a pit stop before your next task at hand,” Sullivan said. “It will not be easy for you, but look at the obstacles that you have overcome to sit here in this moment right now.”

Ortiz doesn’t plan on slowing down on her progress any time soon, either.

“I know life is hard, but it doesn’t stop with my graduation — it’s a lifelong journey. Knowledge is power,” Ortiz said. “To the South Park Academy graduating class, I would like to say ‘Congratulations and job well done.'”

Related: Mother tells of her escape from addiction and being homeless


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‘They never gave up’: 39 incarcerated individuals graduate from South Park Academy