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Knowledge empowers individuals to be masters of their own destinies. Second to life itself, it is life's greatest gift, a speaker told high school and college graduates at Utah State Prison Wednesday.

The prison's South Park Academy presented 30 high school diplomas and four certificates of completion for a building-trades program sponsored by Salt Lake Community College at the facility. Roberto V. Arguelles also received an associate of applied science degree in the construction program.All four college students sported red tassels on their black mortarboards, signifying achievement of 3.5 or better grade point averages.

In addition, 29 inmates were recognized for completion of GED requirements, the equivalent of high school graduation.

Dr. Ronald G. Coleman, interim associate provost for diversity and faculty development at the University of Utah, told the graduates that the educational milestone they had achieved under difficult circumstances should be only the beginning of a commitment to lifelong learning, informal as well as formal.

"Once empowered, the world is yours," he said. He drew on the example of noted black leader Malcolm X, who spent time in prison reading the dictionary "backward and forward" and took other opportunities to add to his education.

Coleman said the choice of an occupation should not be a limiting factor. "If you are going to be a carpenter, be the Michelangelo of carpenters," he advised.

Student speaker Mike Valdez said he was grateful for the opportunity to complete his high school requirements so he can move on to trade school or college level. The prison atmosphere makes it hard to remain motivated, he said, with negative attitudes and drugs at odds with good intentions. But two years of self-study and participation in the prison education program ultimately led to success, he said.

Ricky Dennis Pacheco was named Student of the Year. "He reminded us that we don't teach subjects. We teach individuals," said Martha Sue Kelly, South Park principal. Pacheco was a model of independent work and steadfastness in pursuing a goal. He was motivated to finish high school because he wants to get into the building-trades program, she said.