Utah Department of Corrections

For these men and women, the high school diploma each officially received June 10 at the Utah State Prison represents a major step toward a better future.

In all, 241 inmates achieved the milestone this year. Of those, approximately 150 participated in the South Park Academy commencement exercises at the prison.

Clint McMurtrey, 39, was one of them. McMurtrey dropped out of school at age 15 after being abandoned by his adoptive father and left to fend for himself. McMurtrey completed 18 credit hours at a "blazing fast" pace over the past year to finish his high school degree.

McMurtrey's dream? Get an electrical apprenticeship when he returns to the community to support himself while pursing a degree in social work. He'd like to some day open a shelter for homeless youth modeled after Urban Peak in Denver, Colorado.

"More than anything I regret not finishing high school and going to college when I was younger," McMurtrey said, adding that the opportunity to go to school in prison made him realize how much he likes to learn.

McMurtrey, one of three student speakers on Wednesday, also was named valedictorian and received a $1,000 scholarship from the University of Utah.

Other student speakers were Nathaniel Ganier and Aileen Trujillo.

"I quit making excuses and started making progress," Trujillo said of her decision to finish high school and complete drug treatment in prison.

Nathaniel Ganier, who also was named an outstanding student of the year, said the answer to "What's next?" for him is more education, which he said will lead to job skills needed to get ahead.

South Park Academy Principal Todd Bird named three additional outstanding students of the year: John Luna; Dustin Myers; and Alicia James.

Alicia James got involved with drugs when she was 13 and dropped out of school in 10th grade. By 16, she said she was married, divorced and on the streets, moving from one friend's house to another.

Coming to prison has been "the learning experience of a lifetime," she said. "It's the first time since I was 13 that I've taken time to get to know myself."

She's finished the Excell substance abuse treatment program, earned her high school degree — where James discovered she enjoys math and has a knack for teaching it to others — and set a course for the future.

James would like to become a licensed clinical social worker and then pursue an advanced degree in psychology. James said her goal is to work with abused women, drawing on her own experiences of feeling alone and crazy in such situations.

This year's graduates ranged in age from 20 to 74 and included a mother and her son — Genevieve Billie and Zechariah Curley.

South Park Academy operates through the Canyons School District.