For Inmates, MATC Welding Certificates Give Hope for Better Lives

Graduation held for college’s Second Chance Pell program Fall 2022 participants

Mark Feldmann,

December 15, 2022

Welding Graduation

MILWAUKEE – Hienok Demessie made a life-changing decision in 2019 when he robbed an auto repair facility and set fire to a laundromat in northern Wisconsin. 

That choice got him convicted of several felonies, ordered to pay back nearly $1 million and sentenced to prison.

He made another life-altering decision this fall when he entered Milwaukee Area Technical College’s Second Chance Pell program which provides federal aid to people in state and federal prisons so they can receive postsecondary education while incarcerated. 

On Thursday, December 8, Demessie and 10 other Wisconsin inmates earned certificates in welding fundamentals through the MATC program and celebrated at a graduation ceremony at MATC’s Downtown Milwaukee Campus.

See photos from the ceremony

“Before this, I was heading nowhere and heading there fast,” said Demessie, who was the student speaker at the event. “Sometimes you need to make mistakes to learn. But I will never let my past mistakes dictate my future.”

See Channel 58 coverage of the event

See WTMJ coverage of the event

The inmates completed 17 credits in one semester, attending classes every weekday and on Saturdays, said Guy Burazin, one of the MATC welding instructors in the program. “You learned a lot in a very short period of time,” Burazin told the graduates. “Now it’s up to you to apply it.”

Once released, the inmates can get jobs that start at more than $20 an hour, and Wisconsin urgently needs skilled welders, Burazin said. “The opportunities in welding are abundant. Set aside any doubts and fears you have and go out and conquer the welding industry,” he said. “Do not dwell on the past; go and forge a new future for yourself and your loved ones.”

MATC was the first Wisconsin college to participate in the Second Chance program.

“We are proud to be pioneers,” said Becky Alsup, dean of MATC’s Manufacturing, Construction and Transportation Academic & Career Pathway. “We believe in second chances, and we put that belief into action with this program.”

By participating in the Second Chance program, inmates cut the chances of returning to prison almost in half, said Dr. Sadique Isahaku, dean of MATC’s General Education Academic & Career Pathway. 

A 2018 RAND Corporation study showed that inmates who participate in educational programs while in prison have a 48 percent lower chance of ending up back in prison within three years than those who don’t.

“The best antidote for recidivism is a family-sustaining job,” Kevin Carr, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, said at the ceremony. “We want you to use what you have learned as a springboard to success.”

At the graduation event, numerous objects that the participants created during their classes were displayed. The crafted items included roses, name plates, globes and a small chest.

Perseverance and dedication helped create those objects just as much as the welding skills the graduates learned, said MATC President Vicki J. Martin, Ph.D. “You made the decision to join this program, stay in this program and finish this program,” Dr. Martin said. “Even if you were ready to quit, you kept going. And that’s what life is all about.”

For Demessie, now 32, and his fellow graduates, the welding program has given them a chance at much better lives. “I wouldn’t have made it without the support of my classmates,” he said. “We always kept our eyes on the prize. We worked hard, we earned this and we deserve this.”

Find information on Second Chance Pell Program

About MATC: Wisconsin’s largest technical college and one of the most diverse two-year institutions in the Midwest, Milwaukee Area Technical College is a key driver of southeastern Wisconsin’s economy and has provided innovative education in the region since 1912. More than 25,000 students per year attend the college’s four campuses and community-based sites or learn online. MATC offers affordable and accessible education and training opportunities that empower and transform lives in the community. The college offers more than 170 academic programs — many that prepare students for jobs immediately upon completion and others that provide transfer options leading to bachelor’s degrees with more than 40 four-year colleges and universities. Overwhelmingly, MATC graduates build careers and businesses in southeastern Wisconsin. The college is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.