Sept. 9, 2009

Cornell Prison Education Program seeks volunteer tutors

Teaching goes both ways at the Auburn Correctional Facility -- for the inmates in the Cornell Prison Education Program and for the Cornell professors, students and staff members who volunteer to work with them in such subjects as English, mathematics, economics, constitutional law, creative writing, genetics, anthropology, human rights and political thought.

"Once you have volunteered to help teach a class or work with individual students, you are hooked," says Winthrop "Pete" Wetherbee, professor of English and the faculty director of the program. In 1997, he began meeting with a group of Auburn inmates interested in taking college correspondence courses, and soon thereafter, the Cornell at Auburn program was officially launched with an American literature class. It has been growing ever since.

"Professors, graduate and undergraduate students and staff can all make a difference in the learning experience of the inmates, many of whom have been in and out of the detention system for much of their lives," Wetherbee says. "It means a great deal to them to be taught by someone from Cornell, and they are highly motivated. In turn, our volunteers are often surprised by the degree to which they begin to feel with some degree of clarity what it is like to be incarcerated -- what it does to a person and what it teaches."

Thanks to the efforts of Mary Katzenstein, the Stephen and Evalyn Milman Professor of American Studies, the program expanded again last January by offering an associate's degree from Cayuga Community College in Auburn. Approximately 40 full-time and 80 part-time students earn Cornell credits in the dozen or more courses offered at Auburn Correctional Facility each semester; those credits can be applied toward that degree. Additional courses are offered to inmates at the Cayuga Correctional Facility.

James Schechter, program executive director, notes that a new preparatory math class is being offered this fall for exceptional full-time students who need to take a for-credit college math class next semester. "I would like to populate this class with as many teaching assistants as possible," he says, "so that the students can benefit from individualized attention during classroom hours." The class will be taught by two Cornell doctoral students as well as Sally McConnell-Ginet, professor emerita of linguistics.

So far, seven undergraduate students are lined up to serve as teaching assistants Monday and Thursday nights, with classes beginning Sept. 8, Schechter says, noting that he welcomes more volunteers, even after the semester begins, to help with algebra and geometry on either night. With travel, the commitment takes about five hours, he says.

"I have been a teacher for more than 40 years at three wonderful universities, and nothing in that time has been more fulfilling and satisfying than Cornell at Auburn," notes Wetherbee. "As almost everyone I know who has done similar work would acknowledge, it changes your life."

The degree program is supported by Cornell's Office of Land Grant Affairs, the prison, the Sunshine Lady Foundation and individual donors.

Individuals interested in volunteering in the program should contact Schechter at jas349@cornell.edu.