Former inmate lands coding internship at Princeton University

Mary McCrary said a coding class she took in prison changed her life.

Former inmate lands coding internship at Princeton University
Mary McCrary
July 3, 2024, 1:48 PM

A mom of three who spent more than three years in prison is now spending her summer completing an internship at an Ivy League school.

Mary McCrary, 40, of Nashville Tennessee, credits her turnaround from prison to Princeton University, where she is studying, to a coding class she took during her time in prison.

"The class alone made you feel like you’re a human being, that I was working towards something, that there is a goal in sight, I am going to accomplish something, and I did," McCrary told "Good Morning America." "That does give you confidence and hope."

McCrary took the coding class while at the Debra K. Johnson Rehabilitation Center in Nashville, where she served time due to a parole violation following a conviction for aggravated burglary, according to the Tennessee Department of Correction.

The class, part of the center's Persevere program, allows inmates to earn front end web developer or full stack web developer certifications, according to the Tennessee Department of Correction.

McCrary said she enrolled in the class after hitting a breaking point while in prison.

"When you get to a point where you're tired and don’t even want to live and you're hopeless and you feel useless and worthless, you have a decision to make," she said. "I made the decision to use this time to do something different, to change my life, because I didn’t want to keep doing the same things and getting in trouble and ... doing whatever I had to to survive because it gets you in the exact same place."

PHOTO: Mary McCrary turned her life around by taking a coding class while serving time in prison.
Mary McCrary turned her life around by taking a coding class while serving time in prison.
Mary McCrary

After dropping out of high school in 10th grade, McCrary said she later got her GED but did not continue her education any further until she ended up in prison.

After just over six months of studying coding, McCrary said she became certified in front-end coding and then decided to continue her studies by enrolling at Nashville State Community College, which also offered a program for inmates.

By the time she was granted parole and successfully completed her supervision in May, McCrary had completed multiple credits towards her associate's degree and landed an internship at Princeton.

At the New Jersey-based university, McCrary lives on campus and works alongside fellow students performing data analysis in a computational biology and psychology research program.

The nine-week internship program at Princeton is designed to "support formerly incarcerated undergraduate students in gaining research experience in computational biology, the principles of scientific thinking, and research scholarship," according to its website.

Bridgett vonHoldt, Ph.D., an associate professor at Princeton and the head of the internship program, described McCrary as a "role model" student.

"Her dedication to building her future is evident in how she does not shy away from challenges and the unknown," vonHoldt said in a statement. "She is a role model, demonstrating for anyone who thinks such change is impossible that nothing is impossible."

McCrary said she is soaking in her time at Princeton, from the learning opportunities to just seeing something outside of Tennessee. Prior to the internship, McCrary had only traveled out of the state once before and had never seen the ocean.

"This has been life-changing in more ways than one," she said. "This is an unbelievable, sometimes overwhelming experience."

PHOTO: Mary McCrary, second from right, is pictured with her children.
Mary McCrary, second from right, is pictured with her children.
Mary McCrary

Frank Strada, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Correction, told "GMA" that stories like McCrary's are the reason why the state has put a focus on rehabilitation programs in its prisons.

"Mary represents what we’re doing in the state of Tennessee. We are very strongly behind rehabilitation and reentry of our offenders back into the community," he said. "We’re all about second chances and trying to build success."

He continued, "We try to tell our staff to look at them as people and not as inmates, that we're here to affect change and we want to make a better person than when they came here, so it benefits all of society."

When her internship ends in August, McCrary said she will return to Nashville and continue her final year of classes to earn her AA degree. She said she hopes people take away from her story that your past does not define you.

"If you look at my past, it's a crazy shamble mess, but look now, look what can happen," McCrary said. "Nothing is ever impossible."

She said she hopes to help other formerly incarcerated people in the future, adding, "Just because their past is messed up doesn't mean they're not a person, and it's not necessarily that we need a handout. We just need a hand up in the right direction."

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