ITHACA, N.Y. — “My first semester was really hard, my last semester was just as hard, but I made it,” said Sheena Veney as she accepted her College Initiative Upstate graduation plaque Thursday at Coltivare, where she has worked while completing her degree in hotel and restaurant management at Tompkins Cortland Community College.
Veney’s remarks pointed to the barriers that each of the students honored at the 2019 College Initiative Upstate Graduation Celebration overcame to pursue an education after court involvement or incarceration. From the stigma of a criminal record to the logistical challenges of finding transportation and child care, the cohort of graduates and dean’s list awardees navigated obstacles on the path to a degree with help from CIU, which operates out of the Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources of Tompkins County office.
Benay Rubenstein established the CIU program in Ithaca in 2016, after working for years in New York City to create pathways from court to the classroom. In Tompkins County, she said, “the challenges are different, but the need for men and women with criminal justice experience to create new life opportunities through higher education is identical.”
In its first few years, CIU has provided college preparation, enrollment help, pre- and post-release counseling and ongoing support to more than 100 students.
Graduates at Thursday’s celebration described Rubenstein and CIU academic counselor Suzanne Burnham as sources of unflagging support. Sharing brief anecdotes at the podium, students said Rubenstein and Burnham have helped them overcome impostor syndrome and step into their power.
“When you don’t believe in yourself, find someone who does,” Kristy Strickland, who made the TC3 dean’s list both semesters this year, said with gratitude for the CIU team.
This year’s CIU graduating class averages about 35 years old and includes many first-generation college students. Most students worked while attending classes, many holding two or three jobs, and over half of graduates are parents.
TC3 graduate Asia McBean told the audience she was determined to finish her degree this spring after she found out she was pregnant. Rubenstein joked that even she wasn’t sure it was possible, but said McBean had her baby during spring break and was back in class the next week. Receiving her plaque Thursday, McBean thanked Rubenstein and Burnham through tears for helping her find child care and keep up with classwork.
Mayor Svante Myrick delivered the event’s keynote address and shared his own story of overcoming poverty and homelessness to arrive at Cornell. He knew from a young age that he wanted to be in the room making decisions that could “make sure poor folks have a good shot at life,” he said. He credited his mother, grandparents and teachers, as well as financial aid programs and scholarship funds, with paving his route to leadership.
“Stories about self-made men – and they’re almost always men – are nonsense. They’re all made up,” he said.
Myrick called on graduates to take advantage of their academic success to help those who are still facing obstacles. “Now is your time to be heroes,” he said.
The ceremony closed with an ensemble spoken word performance and song. Graduates dramatized the discouragement that’s been hurled at them, the messages saying they’ll never succeed and shouldn’t bother trying. “Stop!” they shouted in unison. Education brings a degree of freedom after court supervision or incarceration, the performers said, and has given them an opportunity to free others.
“Tomorrow we’ll wake up and reach our hands out to the ones who are left behind. Tomorrow we get to work.”