LAS VEGAS - More than 3,000 students will participate in UNLV's graduation ceremonies on Saturday, May 12, but it is extra special for one doctoral student.
After visiting her father for years in prison, Breanna Bopree has channeled her experiences into a career focused on criminal justice, highlighting the forgotten people incarcerated and their rehabilitation.
"It still feels surreal. It hasn't really sunk in yet," said Bree Bopree.
The UNLV student gathers her thoughts after celebrating a major milestone in life.
"Actually I was just given my PHD because I passed my dissertation defense. "I'm the first to graduate from the doctoral program in criminal justice here."
Three years and 300 pages later, her dissertation focuses on racial disparities.
"Looking at whether women of color were disproportionally incarcerated in comparison to white women," she said.
But the reason she's pursuing this field goes back years.
"My childhood was not the traditional idea of what an upbringing might be."
Both her parents were jailed on drug related charges and her paternal great grandparents gained guardianship when she was less than a year old.
Her mother then moved east.
"I don't really have a relationship with her."
Bopree's father, continually went in and out of the correctional system. Pictures capture her trips visiting him in prisons and work camps around the state.
"So, places like Wells, Nevada to Lovelock. I've been everywhere to visit my father in these different correctional facilities."
For her it seemed normal until one day.
"When he was sentenced to this third drug related felony for those nine to 29 years, at that point I was 10 years old and so I was more aware of what was happening," she said.
And beginning to notice barriers. From dollar a minute phone calls to a family's inability to visit their loved ones in prison.
"Research shows that those social bonds are so important for individuals to desist from crime, that the connection wasn't there for me and that's what lead me to want to study criminal justice and specifically correctional rehabilitation."
Her father successfully rehabilitated while at Nevada state prison. He earned associate degrees and picked up other hobbies.
"So, just being able to learn how to play guitar and have something to do that made him feel like a person in prison was really instrumental to his change."
He left prison for the last time in 2010 giving him a chance to attend daughter's college graduation and eventually walk her down the aisle in 2014.
"We're super close. We've always been super close," she said.
They even have matching tattoos - a nod to a 70's rock band Montrose Song.
"He was the sensation seeker, always wanting to grow up. So, he makes me listen to that song to take back and not grow up too fast."
But she's become her own woman and is taking charge as she pursues her career in criminal justice - all thanks to her experiences and her father.
Bopree accepted a faculty position at Wichita State and will begin in the fall. Her father is working towards a general studies degree at the University of Nevada, Reno and hopes to one day be a drug counselor.
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