ITHACA, N.Y.—After years of hard work, students who partake in College Initiative Upstate (CIU) will have a virtual graduation celebration Feb. 26 at 7 p.m. in an event that will be streamed via YouTube. The graduates—some of whom hail from Stanford University, State University of New York at Cortland, and Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3)—enlisted the help of CIU after court involvement or incarceration, using the tools CIU offered to pursue degrees in pubic health or political science, among other majors.

Benay Rubenstein said she founded CIU in Brooklyn in 2000. Back then, it was just known as College Initiatives, but when she brought it to Tompkins County, with the help of the OAR of Tompkins County, in 2016, she added “Upstate” to its name. In New York City, CIU is also now part of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. 

Rubenstein said the program helps students, often first-generation, navigate the collegiate process after involvement with the criminal justice system, to whatever degree. CIU provides them with support while applying and after being accepted, helping them navigate the student loan process, college essay writing, paying for transcript retrieval and sometimes loaning out Chromebooks or laptops to students. CIU students can also access CIU’s tutoring services for classes after being accepted, a partnership with Cornell University’s peer tutors.

“Once you are in with us, you are in for your whole academic journey,” said Suzanne Burnham, Academic Outreach Program Coordinator for CIU.

The graduation is a way to celebrate the students’ dedication in receiving a degree and following through with the program, Rubenstein said. In the past, graduations were held in-person, and in 2019, Rubenstein said that a reception was held in Coltivare, TC3’s farm-to-bistro restaurant.

“I feel that the group that we have [graduating], it’s such a diverse group and really representative of America: different ages, different backgrounds, just a real melting pot of courageous people who are doing something (…) real in their lives,” she said.  

One student graduating is Joseph Willie Devail Anderson Jr., an undergraduate student at Stanford University studying political science with a concentration in political economy development. He first came to know CIU and Rubenstein while part of the Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP), a service that provides college courses for people incarcerated in upstate New York State prisons, according to the CPEP website. 

Anderson said Rubenstein came to the program to talk to him about what life after graduation from CPEP would look like, and before he used CIU’s academic resources, Anderson wrote letters to the parole board to request being released from prison early — with Rubenstein’s help, his requests were granted. Anderson said that going to Stanford was a top choice for him and with CIU’s help, he was able to find the resources he needed to get in.

While growing up in Brooklyn, Anderson said crime was quickly ingrained in his life. He said that because he could read and write, he was taken under the wing of the criminal element, using his skills to assist them. He first went to a juvenile detention facility, then was in a number of state prisons for crimes he committed as a teenager.

Now, Anderson said he hopes to use his degree to assist and support kids coming out of juvenile detention because there was little support for him after he did. He also said he hopes to get a Master of Business Administration to create meaningful economic opportunities for people who come from the same criminal background as him.

“[I was] using my mind just for things that lead to the destruction, overall destruction, instead of uplifting the community or bettering everyone’s situation,” he said. “If we, as a society, intervene early on at those junctures in life, I think many of us wouldn’t be trouble later on as adults.”

Another graduate this year is Ashley Dickson, currently pursuing a master’s in community health studies at SUNY Cortland. Before going to Cortland, Dickson (who uses they/them pronouns) attended TC3, where they met Burnham for the first time. Dickson said they have been in recovery for substance abuse since 2015, something that has informed their interest in public health. 

As a CIU student, Dickson said they feel genuinely appreciated by Burnham and CIU, both in their academic accountability and support for who they are as a person. 

“I’m not just a number with the file attached to it,” Dickson said. “I’m the second person in my immediate family to get a degree. so getting my bachelor’s degree is not something any of us expected. … It wasn’t even in my plan. When I first got sober. I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll get a two year degree, and I’ll do counseling work,’ and now all of a sudden, I’m in a master’s program, and getting my bachelor’s degree was just beyond my wildest dreams.”

Burnham said she is looking forward to celebrating the graduating class’ achievements and what they’re headed for next.

“The trajectory of their lives has taken a whole different path,” she said. “It’s really important in my perspective that we’re not looking at the students as a bunch of judicially involved criminals who are given a chance to gain education. (…) These are some of the smartest, most productive members of society that I’ve ever met.”