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Graduates at Auburn prison praise Cornell program

Nathan Powell
Dave Burbank
Class of 2014 valedictorian Nathan Powell speaks at the Dec. 10 commencement ceremony at Auburn Correctional Facility.

Members of the Class of 2014 at Auburn Correctional Facility expressed their appreciation for the sense of community they gained from their instructors and from each other at the second commencement of the Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP), held Dec. 10 at the maximum-security facility.

Thirteen graduates participated in the commencement ceremony, receiving associate degrees in humanities and social science conferred by Cayuga Community College as part of the State University of New York. Two additional graduates of the program will receive their diplomas elsewhere – one is on parole, and the other is at a lower-security prison.

Valedictorian Nathan Powell, who achieved a 4.1 GPA, CPEP Executive Director Robert Scott noted, “without the benefit of Cornell libraries, Cayuga advising or the Internet,” spoke about the program as proof of the value of a liberal arts education.

“These CPEP courses, there’s a magic to them ... everyone in that class contributes,” Powell said. “We say, ‘each one, teach one’ – and that’s education.” Conversations about their classes with inmates who are not in the program “have the power to change prison culture,” he added.

“There’s not a person here who hasn’t dealt with pain, depression and loss,” Powell said. “But in the words of Maya Angelou, ‘still we rise.’ All of you who didn’t give up on us ... Your time was not wasted here, people. You came in here and you cared and we will not forget it.”

Scott emceed the ceremony, which also featured remarks by salutatorian Lucas Whaley and graduates Leroy Taylor and John Hetherington.

CPEP Class of 2014
Dave Burbank
Cornell Prison Education Program graduation coordinator Benay Rubenstein, center, poses with the Class of 2014 following their commencement ceremony Dec. 10.

“CPEP is not only about education, but about bringing people together – and here we are, bridging gaps,” Taylor said.

Doris Buffett, whose Sunshine Lady Foundation provides funding for the program, said: “It’s inspiring to me to see what the human condition can endure and overcome, and you’re all living examples of that. I went way out on a limb when I started doing this … you’ve made it work.”

In his commencement address, Ronald Day, who was incarcerated for 15 years, began his college career at Sing Sing Correctional Facility and now teaches as a criminal justice Ph.D. student at John Jay College, remarked that the Class of 2014 was “graduating in a time when few prisons offer college programs.”

“The more educated we are, the more responsibility we have,” Day said. “You have a responsibility to work with other men, to make a difference in their communities. You are associated with someone who is going home.”

The academic assembly at the ceremony included administrators from Cayuga Community College along with Cornell Vice Provost Judith Appleton, director of Engaged Cornell; Mary Katzenstein, the Stephen and Evalyn Milman Professor of American Studies; Tyi McCray, Ph.D. ’13, director of the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion; CPEP faculty director Thomas Owens, associate professor of plant biology; and Pete Wetherbee, the Avalon Foundation Professor Emeritus in the Humanities, who began teaching English courses to inmates at Auburn in 1995.

Wetherbee, “Doc” to his students at Auburn, said he could be called “the inadvertent founder” of the program – “I had no idea what it was going to become.”

“I thought they were incredibly eloquent,” he said of the graduates, who conveyed a “sense of community, their sense of devotion to one another – that the program is not just an academic credential, but a community they have been a part of and may continue to be part of. I’ve known men that have left this facility and went to other facilities and got into other academic programs there, and they missed our program essentially because of [that] sense of community.”

McCray, who taught chemistry to undergraduates and inmates as a Cornell graduate student, said her students at Auburn set themselves apart.

“The students were really eager; that’s what resonated with me. They really wanted you to be there – they wanted all the knowledge you had to give them,” she said. “They were receptive and open, and I really enjoyed that dialogue. You feed off their appreciation. The kinds of questions they asked made you think about your subject matter in a completely different way.”

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