Sherron Brown

Sherron Brown, Deputy Director of OAR Tompkins County

Hi! I’m Sherron Brown and I am currently managing CIU. I grew up on Long Island and moved to Ithaca in 2000. I worked for Cornell Cooperative Extension and Cornell University for 18 years in administrative roles and human resources. I volunteered with OAR and have connected with amazing staff and clients. I’m excited to be a part of the students’ journeys to higher education.

I returned to college in 2020 to complete degrees in Human Services and Communication Studies. I also focused on Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies and African American Studies. I graduated in 2022 and I am excited to reconnect with the Tompkins County community and all who CIU serves.

As a first-generation college student, myself, I look forward to removing barriers to higher education for people who are formerly incarcerated, court-involved, low-income, substance users, and those who need academic support after receiving their GED or TASC., 607-351-3201


Benay Rubenstein, Founder of College Initiative Upstate

For the past 35 years, Benay Rubenstein has been a leading voice on higher education for people impacted by the criminal legal system. She began her career at Marist College, coordinating degree programs in both New York State and Federal prisons. These years spent working in prisons, in the 80s and 90s, put her smack in the middle of the unprecedented growth of the prison industrial complex, and she experienced firsthand the deep damage incarceration imposes both on individuals and the core-values of our democracy. In 1994-95, when federal and NYS financial aid was removed for use in prisons, some 365 college programs in prisons closed overnight (including those at Marist).

Fortunately, Benay was asked to coordinate one of the first new prison degree programs supported by private money and a private college at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, NYS’s only maximum-security prison for women. This is where she recognized the gap faced by people released from prison who wanted to continue their college education. To fill that gap, she founded the first model of College Initiative (CI) in New York City in 2002. CI quickly gained remarkable acclaim and is now a program of The Institute for Justice and Opportunity (formerly the Prisoner Reentry Institute) at CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice. In 2016, shortly after moving to Ithaca, Benay joined forces with OAR of Tompkins County and College Initiative’s urban model became College Initiative Upstate, a model based on the college experience in a rural area.  Four years later, CIU has changed the lives of over one hundred fifty students and has contributed to the dramatic fall of recidivism rates in Tompkins County.

Through the years, Benay has also had a deep interest in documentary film as a powerful tool for social change. Films she has co-produced include the award-winning documentary, The Last Graduation: The Rise and Fall of Higher Education Inside New York State Prisons (with Barbara Zahm, Director/ Producer of Zahm Productions, 1997), Re-Imagine the Future: From Prison to College, where CI college students speak to their counterparts in prison about the importance of higher education during reentry (with Jeremy Robins) and Passport to the Future, a documentary film exploring barriers to college admissions for applicants with criminal records.

Fun Facts: Benay was raised on a chicken farm in New Jersey, studied anthropology at Columbia University, spent a year backpacking overland to India in 1967, taught academic subjects through ceramics in the first alternative public school in NYC, and directed a paralegal degree program at the same prison depicted in Orange is the New Black. She also enjoys yoga, gardening, collecting hamsas, and spending time with her three children and six grandchildren., 607-351-5028