Nationwide — At the age of 79, Reverend Willie Ryals from Tallahassee, Florida, has defied the odds by achieving his lifelong dream of earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice after spending years in prison.
Back in the day, he started at Florida A&M University’s Developmental Research School but left to chase a singing career with various bands. Things took a turn when he joined the U.S. Army in 1962 after life on the road got tough.
A home break-in gone wrong led him to prison after defending himself from intruders. He got sentenced to 10 to 20 years for aggravated manslaughter.
Despite his circumstances, Ryals didn’t let go of his dreams. He finished high school while in prison and even started taking college courses. After his early release in 1971, he realized his passion for criminal justice.
“While I was in prison, I saw a need for criminal justice reform. There are too many young Blacks going to jail for crimes that they didn’t commit, and there needs to be some changes,” Ryals told Blavity.
But life’s responsibilities took over, Ryals first settled into life as a pastor and family man, leading the Zion Hope Community Baptist Church in Florida. It wasn’t until 2021 that Ryals revisited his dreams. He enrolled in online classes to finally pursue a degree.
Now, after this incredible journey, Ryals is all set to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from American Intercontinental University, just three days before he turns 80.
Despite challenges like juggling pastoral duties and caring for his wife, Ryals persisted. His wife Mandy and daughter Marionette Taylor are proud of his achievement.