TAFT — Dawn Bjornson gave her valedictorian speech in stops and starts Thursday, trying to hold back tears between deep breaths.
The 28-year-old wife and mother of three children stood before her fellow inmates at the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center and spoke about family and future.
"We're not where we want to be, but we're not where we were at. So enjoy it all the way to where we are going," she said, bringing a round of applause.
Bjornson graduated with honors in her GED class, finishing in the top quartile of the national test and earning a two-year scholarship to Connors State College in Warner.
At the graduation ceremony in the prison chapel, 40 female offenders donned caps and gowns - 39 received high school diplomas and one earned an associate degree.
In the past week, both of Bjornson's parents died - her mother from cancer and her father of a heart attack.
"I'm still numb from that," she said. But "I'm so proud to be their daughter and to be standing before you today. I'm honored to have them as guardian angels. I wouldn't be here without them."
Bjornson, who is in prison on two methamphetamine possession convictions, plans to continue with college and earn a degree in counseling.
She has not seen her children - ages 10, 9 and 5 - since her incarceration in March. But she plans to reunite with them and her husband in Wyoming after her release, which she hopes will be in 2014.
"I was a drug addict at 13, quit school at 14, have been raped and molested," she said.
"I've been there and done that and don't want to be there anymore. I want and am ready to help someone who needs it."
When Sara Pollard saw her mother and 1-year-old son enter the chapel, she wrapped her arms around them.
"This is the first real accomplishment I've ever made in my life," Pollard said.
"When I came here, I thought my life was over. It looked bad. No one would ever hire me, and there was no good that would ever come of it.
"But a lot of good has come out of it. I want my son to see how important this is to me and that you can't miss an education."
Pollard, 21, dropped out of school at 17 and is in prison on drug convictions. She plans to attend Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College and the University of Oklahoma to study psychology.
Her mother, who is caring for her grandson, let her tears show as she beamed at her daughter.
"I pray it's a turning point for her, and I'm extremely proud of her," said Cherlyn Gelinas.
Salutatorian Jennifer Ketterer, 42, received a scholarship to Connors of about $1,300 per year for two years.
"I've taken so much from the community, friends and family - not too big to admit that - but I'm going to give back," Ketterer said. "I feel like I can be a contributing member of society instead of a burden."
The lone college graduate, Evelyn Huckleberry, looked at her 3-year-old daughter during most of the ceremony.
"She's too little to understand that I needed her here to see me be successful," Huckleberry said.
"I'm here because I'm a bad mother. I lost all rights to my children, and my daughter was born after I was in prison.
"She is my inspiration, and I wanted to show her a different picture than what I showed her older siblings."
Huckleberry entered prison in 2008 on child-neglect convictions, which stemmed from her alcoholism.
Her children, ages 10, 8, 6 and 3, have been adopted by her sister, who remains a "constant support," she said.
Huckleberry, who received an associate degree in general studies, is up for parole next year and plans to pursue a bachelor's degree in English and eventually a master's degree. She is a member of the Cherokee Nation, which helped pay her tuition.
She plans to live in the Tulsa area and work with people on managing chronic illnesses.
"Education has helped me see that a lot of decisions I made were spur-of-the-moment and based on emotion rather than fact," Huckleberry said.
Before the women moved their tassels on the caps, Pam Humphrey, superintendent of schools for the state's corrections agency, told them to expect challenges.
"You will go from here greater individuals than when you came here," Humphrey said. "You will not come back to prison but go forward and do the things you were designed to do on this earth."