Skip to content

13 Students, 6 of Them Formerly Incarcerated, Share Stories in Unique Education Course

Associate Professor of Education Erin McCloskey had planned to teach a course this spring to some inmates at the Dutchess County Jail. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to scrap those plans, McCloskey found an alternative.

She recruited six participants at Exodus Transitional Community, an agency that provides services to people who have recently left jail or prison, to join seven Vassar students in enrolling in Education 215. The course used storytelling techniques to explore the benefits and drawbacks of various educational systems and the significance of factors such as race, class, and gender in shaping young people’s experiences.

Vassar students and Associate Professor of Education Erin McCloskey (top, fourth from left) celebrated the completion of Education 215 with participants of the Exodus Transitional Community and Exodus staff at a barbecue on the Exodus grounds in Poughkeepsie.

On May 18, McCloskey and her students gathered on the Exodus grounds in downtown Poughkeepsie to celebrate the conclusion of the class with balloons and a barbecue. “This fuels my love of teaching,” McCloskey told her students. “I am honored to have been a part of this experience, hearing all your stories.”

Exodus participant and Poughkeepsie resident D’Jaris Christiani, who earned a degree from Dutchess Community College six years ago, said continuing her education had been one of her primary goals since she was released from jail. “I really wanted to go back to school, and this class, where all of us from different backgrounds could tell our stories, was truly a success,” Christiani said. “I learned a lot and enjoyed making connections with the students at Vassar.”

D’Jaris Christiani receives her Certificate of Participation from Associate Professor McCloskey

Nora Reissig, Vice President for Development and Programs, said many of the agency’s participants list furthering their education as one of the seven goals they are required to set when they join Exodus. “This collaboration with Vassar served as a great way for our participants to experience what it’s like to take a college course,” Reissig said.

Takiaya Stevens, of Newburgh, said completing the class had inspired her to continue her education. “It has given me a foundation for my education I can build on,” Stevens told McCloskey and her students. “During this class, you all were my family.”

Lily Hammer ’22, a psychology major from Wethersfield, CT, said taking part in the class had been an enlightening experience. “Vassar is a great place to learn, but sometimes it’s good to get out of the bubble,” she said. “This course allowed us to do that, and I was grateful for how open and respectful everyone was and how much we genuinely listened to each other’s ideas.”

Abi Bethke ’22, an education major from Appleton, WI, said sharing stories with the clients from Exodus had been fulfilling. “I’m grateful for what my classmates chose to share with me about their lives and for the relationships we built,” Bethke said. “What I learned about our local community and some of its organizations taught me how to build networks that will enable us to support one another.”

This class is one of many “intensive” courses supported by a grant from the Community-Engaged Intensives in the Humanities Initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. 

“This initiative aims to foster and support the development of a new kind of non-traditional, deeply mentored course designed to encourage meaningful interactions among faculty, students, and community organizations; enable sustainable community partnerships,” said Lisa Kaul, director of the Initiative and director of the Office of Community-Engaged Learning. “It brings faculty scholarship and teaching into conversation with community needs and interests as articulated by the community; develop thematic clusters of community-engaged learning opportunities that provide a framework for long-lasting and equitable collaborations with community partners; leverage community assets and expertise; and last, empower students to lead impactful lives.”