How Student Affairs Put Me in Prison and Dropped Me Off in the Morgue

As a practitioner, we are constantly trying to inspire out students to expand their horizons. We want them to reach outside of their comfort zone, incorporate multiple viewpoints of the world, and expand upon their preconceived notions. Yet throughout our constant attempts to encourage outward-thinking students, we often compartmentalize ourselves professionally.

For me, I don’t know if I will be a housing professional for life. I’m not the best goal setter, and I couldn’t tell you what I’ll be doing five years from now, but as I move up and explore the many areas of Student Affairs I know that I need to vary my experiences to open up as many opportunities as possible. Fortunately for us, student affairs offers tons of opportunities which can lead to adventures you traditionally may not experience regardless of your profession.

During my last semester of graduate school, I did a practicum within our Financial Aid office. As part of my duties, I was able to go with a co-worker to a federal penitentiary to help some of the inmates fill out their FAFSA. While prison is generally the last place on earth most people want to go, this opportunity was absolutely amazing and intimidating at the same time. As I slowly heard the metal gates lock behind me like in the movies, my preconceived notions of safety disappeared. I slowly walked with a guard through the prison into the classroom where I would be presenting. Because the building had previously been put on “lock-down” because of an incident the day before, the building had even more security. . Each and every cell I passed was a reminder of how fortunate I was. Ranging from hollow shells of men to men who looked like they could work in the classroom next to me, I saw that prison did not base its decision on looks. It was not ageist, and it did not care where you came from.

Yet as I entered the classroom and the guards slowly started to line up inmates in the desks in front of me, I saw a much different side of prison that is not demonstrated in your glamorized TV shows and movies. As these students (men trying to find any way to better their current station in life) were handed their FAFSA form and pencil I received multiple thanks and blessings. The thankfulness and appreciation of these Ball State University students was much different from that in the traditional classroom. And as I continued to present to multiple groups throughout the day, I was astounded by the thankfulness of these convicted criminals. As I talked to the Ball State liaison about these students, I learned that statistically if the prisoners within this prison were to take even a single college course it lowered their recidivism rate by nearly 80%! Some of the students from the past have even found themselves becoming enrolled in the traditional classroom once their sentence was complete. We talk about the power of education every day, but it took working in a prison to see how powerful it truly is.

But my adventure didn’t stop there. This past weekend I was afforded the opportunity to take a small group of criminal justice students to the county morgue. Generally not a location a person ever wants to be in, I found myself excited to take these students to a place considered taboo, scary, and unsettling. As we walked to the location (fortunately it is located in our county hospital on the corner of campus) I was able to talk to the students and why they were interested in going on this trip. Two of the students had related majors and hoped this experiential opportunity would present them more information about a potential future career. The other student, however, was a hospitality management major. When asked why she wanted to go on this trip she replied, “How often do you get to go someplace like this alive or not in sadness.” As I reflected upon her statement, I realized this was the power of education. You have the ability to “test the waters” of many careers and opportunities. Your options can be limitless, and if actively pursued, a student in college can experience more things in four years than most people get to experience in a lifetime. The same can be said about your entry-level position.

As we entered the hospital, we were greeted with a delay. Unfortunately the coroner had a call, so we were left to sit in the emergency room. For my students and I, this was temporarily frustrating. We had this appointment to tour the hospital and find out about this interesting career path and now we were being delayed. Once we considered the significance of this delay, however, we changed our tone. If the coroner was late because of a call that meant that a life was lost within the community. Suddenly the importance of this position became clear, and our educational trip suddenly seemed so insignificant. After an hour had passed, the coroner showed up and graciously introduced us to his facilities, his equipment, and his profession. With enthusiasm in his demeanor and a smile on his face, the county coroner supplied my students and I with the historical context of his position, his appointed duties, and the struggles it entails. Through his actions, you never would have known that he was just interacting with an elderly community member who had recently passed away in her home. 

I left the morgue with an entirely new perception of the location and of the coroner profession. For many of us, death is the end of the road. For those who interact with the bodies of our dearly deceased, death is a daily occurrence just like eating lunch or sending an email. It made me realize that regardless of your profession, it is what you make it. Just like few people grow up thinking they will become student affairs professionals, I doubt that many have dreams of becoming a coroner either. However at some point in all of our lives there comes that crossroads where we must make a decision. We must pick the path which we feel will benefit us the most, lead to the most personal satisfaction, or meet another of the thousands of reasons we choose a profession. That time comes for all of us, and the more experience we have the more avenues we have to pursue.

While I may never seek a position working with our deceased, and I hopefully will not end up in a prison any time soon (knock on wood), student affairs has provided me some diverse opportunities to glimpse into worlds I may never have experiences growing up in small-town Iowa. As I continue grow professionally, I hope to learn from these experiences and apply them to my own professional future. Some of these adventures may not be as applicable as others, however every experience learned is another opportunity to share in a student’s future development.

Charle Cherry

Student Affairs - the First Years

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