College Initiative Upstate creates pathways to and through college for court-involved and formerly incarcerated people
College Initiative Upstate (CIU) is a learning community of students, educators, and volunteers who are working together to build pathways to and through college for court-involved and formerly incarcerated people living in Tompkins County, NY. CIU’s model provides the resources for college preparation, college enrollment, and community leadership – all free of charge. The only requirement besides justice involvement is a high school diploma or equivalency. By effectively addressing the individual and structural barriers to higher education, including the gap in preparation for college enrollment for individuals impacted by the legal system, CIU offers a life-changing path for non-traditional students experiencing poverty, substance use, and legal involvement.
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Each semester we will shine a spotlight on a few CIU students who will share their unique stories. Meet some of our amazing 2021 students!
The first time I was arrested I was 14, by 17 I had been kicked out of my local school, and before I could finish high school I wasn’t allowed in any New York State School. By 19 I was a convicted felon and by 22 I was in prison. I thought I had put that life behind me when I was released to parole and I worked on building a different life, but I could never see that my alcohol and drug use were playing a detrimental role in my life. Still, I managed a full-time job and was in the middle of starting my own family with the birth of my son. By that time, I had silently found heroin and was doing a great job of hiding it from everyone. Finally, when I couldn’t hide it anymore, I split, and left my son and his mother to go do drugs for several years. I spent a few years homeless, hopeless, and lost.
In 2016, after a series of misdemeanor criminal arrests, I was arrested for another felony, driving while impaired from drugs. I was fortunate enough to be released to CARS inpatient facility, a halfway house in Cortland, and sentenced to felony probation. I had a major slip in 2018 while getting things together to start TC3. I had found CIU through a friend and they helped me get into college. Unfortunately, what began as drinking ended up with another long session of heroin use. I even overdosed before taking my college entrance exams. I did not end of finishing the semester and ended up getting some much-needed help at rehab in Pennsylvania.
After taking a year to really focus on my recovery and to establish that I had a solid foundation to build off of, I contacted CIU, and we got the ball rolling again. I was on double academic probation and a few other restrictions that said I needed to pass all of my classes or I wouldn’t be able to attend college anymore. I put a lot of hard work in the first semester and ended with a 4.0 and an award of repeat academic probation. More importantly, I found out what I wanted to do with my life. I was asked in an assignment to answer what I would do for work if I didn’t need to get paid to do it. The following semester I switched my major to Paralegal, I got a 3.8 and ended up on the Dean’s list. I work at Brix in Cortland making pizzas, I have a son I spend time with, I attend school full time, and I’m going to graduate in May 2022. I went from being homeless, hopeless, and lost to planning on getting a 4-year degree and go to law school so I can help people who haven’t had the same chances and opportunities I’ve had, get those opportunities. Recovery programs and college have given me a chance at a life a thought was closed to a person like me. My life has never been more fulfilling with goals that are worthwhile.
I became a CIU student in Fall 2018 during the time I was stuck in the court system fighting for my kids and being involved with the Drug Court. After completing CIU’s College Prep Class in the Fall, I enrolled in TC3 that spring. I also graduated from every court system I was in, regained full custody of my kids, and continued to work full-time and attend school full-time. Every semester at TC3 I’ve been on the Dean’s list and maintained a GPA between 3.6-4.0. In May 2021 I received my Associate Degree in Chemical Dependency and will receive a second Associate in Human Services in December 2021.
My next goal is going for my BSW so I am able to give back to those who helped me succeed!
I am a Xicano born and raised in a small town in North Texas. When I came to Ithaca more than five years ago, I was not sure if I wanted to continue my education. However, with CIU’s guidance and support, I have been able to pursue my academic goals with the tools I needed to go back to college. CIU also helped me integrate my passions, such as working in the community and photography into my school program. In 2020, after graduating from Tompkins Cortland Community College with an A.S. in Human Service, I transferred to a B.S. program at SUNY Cortland. My major is Health Education with a concentration in Wellness and Health Promotion. In addition to my studies, my internship with OAR of Tompkins County turned into a half-time job as a Client Service Assistant. Working in the community and going to school has been both rewarding and challenging. Rewarding because I have met and worked with underserved and vulnerable people in the local community. Challenging because I have had to learn patience, not only with others but also with myself. The job is also teaching me structure, how to get things done, office skills, and most importantly, teamwork. Five years ago, I was often intimidated by life changes. Now, have more self-confidence and know that I can get things done and ride the waves. I know I will use these skills for the rest of my life.
Today I look forward to finishing my BA at SUNY Cortland, and then moving back to Austin, Texas to be closer to my family – and possibly attending graduate school.
Enjoy meeting our outstanding Fall 2020 cohort below!
In 2017, my year had started off rough. I left a violent domestic relationship, got evicted, and had to send my two sons to live with my parents out of town. That’s when a friend told me about CIU, and I decided to stop by. From then on, I would continually meet with Benay and Suzanne about my life goals, community resources, TC3 information, financial aid, and school supplies. After graduation, in 2018, I returned to TC3 for Nursing prerequisites, and a second degree. In 2020, I was accepted to TC3’s nursing program. CIU has been a huge support team, guiding me through each semester and giving me the foundation to achieve my educational and life goals.
I am a working mom with three children attending TC3 fulltime. I was accepted to TC3 with a GED, having never been to high school or college. It took me a year or so to start believing that I could not only complete my program but also do well academically. What helped was feedback from teachers, my growing self-confidence, all the support available at TC3, and College Initiative Upstate. Last semester I completed my A.S. degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences and have been accepted into TC3’s Nursing Program for Fall 2020. My children will see me accomplish this and I will have shown them that with hard work and determination, anything is possible.
At 15, I entered a juvenile detention facility and spent the next decade in state prisons for a string of crimes I committed as a teenager. While incarcerated, I was fortunate to be able to complete an Associate degree with the Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP). After release, with the incredible support and guidance from the CIU staff, I applied to 13 colleges! Fall 2018, I was accepted into Stanford University on a full academic scholarship to study political science and Mandarin. My transition from Auburn Correctional Facility to Cornell University, and now Stanford, would never have happened without the help and support of College Initiative Upstate, a program that works with court-involved and formerly incarcerated people in Tompkins County. I am set to complete my undergraduate degree at the end of 2020 and look forward to continuing my education at the Graduate level.
I was stuck in a job that was headed nowhere for over 8 years, when it became apparent that if I was to have any hope of making a good living without working endless hours, I would need a college education. I called CIU and talked with a Counselor for 20 minutes. Those 20 minutes changed my life. I just received my final letter of approval and acceptance into TC3’s A.A.S degree in Construction and Environmental Technology. With this degree I hope to do some good for our planet and our environment while learning how to build a green home for my family, all while being able to live securely financially.