79-year-old Rev. Willie Ryals, who began attending an online university in 2021, has finally earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
According to the Tallahassee Democrat, he first enrolled in Florida A&M University’s Developmental Research School as a teenager but left to pursue a career as a singer with numerous bands. He eventually enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1962.
Defending himself against invaders during a house break-in led him to prison, where he received a sentence of 10 to 20 years for aggravated manslaughter. Ryals finished high school and enrolled in college while he was a prisoner. In 1971, he was given an early release from prison but his time there motivated him to pursue a degree in 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,” he said.
After prison, he established himself in Gadsden County, Florida, where he is now the pastor of Zion Hope Community Baptist Church. Last month, the Tallahassee Democrat reported that he will accept his degree from the American Intercontinental University and turn 80 three days following his graduation.
“I’m happy for myself because my father always wanted me to go after a degree. He’s passed and gone, but I’m keeping this promise,” Ryals told the news outlet.
His wife and children are proud of him for being able to combine classes with home and pastoral duties.
“He would miss some of his classes because of my doctor’s appointments and would have to catch up, but he never gave up,” Ryals’ wfie Mandy Woodard Ryals said. “He works all night and sometimes would have to prop his legs up for the swelling, but he would still go after it. I’m proud of him and very, very happy.”