Sleep deprived, over-committed and drowning in work, I was feeling that classic mid-semester stress. It was probably around this time last year, in fact. It was a Thursday, meaning I was in marathon mode — running from the farmers’ market to a prison trip and book discussion for one class that happened to be during the midterm for another. Luckily, my professor agreed to let me take the test on Friday. Having just switched majors, I was trying to prove to my new department (and to myself) that I was capable of doing well. But even my determination was not helping me focus.
It was just one of those weeks. Regardless of where I sat down, I reread the same paragraph 40 times, only after ordering yet another coffee and then being too jittery to sit. I wanted desperately to read these long articles that outlined major planning theories, the crux of my studies, and immerse myself. But I couldn’t. Words were dancing around the pages of my American City Reader and I was fundamentally screwed.
I tried to calm myself, but I was anxious. How was I going to get everything done? Why weren’t there more hours in the day? Here I was leaving school, taking a chunk out of my day to visit a prison and have a book discussion when I wasn’t even on top of my own work.
Luckily, as we drove outside of Ithaca, into colorful scenes of Upstate autumn, my frantic feelings weaned. Arriving at Cayuga Correctional Facility was somewhat of a shock. I never realized how limited one’s outdoor space is when in prison. It was the first of many realizations that evening.
After a small tour, our class was split into two groups so that we could intermingle with prisoners and participate in a reading circle. Cornell’s Prison Education Program works with CCF to bring courses to prisoners. Our professor, Mary Katzenstein, is a main proponent of the program and organized the event for our on-campus class called “Prisons.”
We had all read Geoffrey Canada’s Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun and were supposed to discuss our thoughts and reactions to the book. The last time I had done a literature circle was my senior year of high school, so I wasn’t expecting much. But what came out of it was far more inspirational than I could have ever predicted.
The initial conversation was undeniably awkward. Here we were, prisoners and Cornell students, sharing our ideas and thoughts, trying not to make assumptions about either party. Self conscious about the elitism associated with an Ivy League school, I was especially careful about any comment I made. I feared someone would call me out for my suburban upbringing or blatant ignorance. But they didn’t. They actually listened and inquired about the points I made. Everyone was curious.
Before I knew it, the conversations started flowing naturally. These prisoners were far more engaged and engaging than any of my peers during section. Instead of a professor pulling teeth to get people contributing, there was an outpouring of excitement. Everyone cared! And in fact, they had perspective that we didn’t. These books we were reading, the literature we were analyzing — they lived it. They could explain first-hand the pipelines from neighborhoods to prisons, they could understand things we couldn’t.
Whenever someone mentioned a text they’d read previously or referenced a certain study, one man would eagerly jot it down, hungry for any new book suggestions. He was perhaps the most influential to me, personally. He asked questions, challenged everyone and contributed often to our conversation. But he gave us one piece of advice before we left that truly stayed with me. He said, simply, “I would give anything to be in school right now. Value it. You are so, so lucky. If I could tell myself something 10 years ago, I’d say work hard in school.”
He — and the other prisoners — were so passionate about education. They kept telling us how lucky we were, how much they’d love to be in our shoes. I felt guilty for feeling so frustrated with school.
Somewhere in that hour of conversation, it happened. Something within me was reignited. I was suddenly filled with a powerful direction and inspiration. I returned home that night and ran into my apartment to greet my roommates. They were unwinding, telling stories and relaxing together. I was, of course, sad to miss out, but I was also excited.
I tried to articulate what happened that evening, but I couldn’t quite. Instead, I grabbed my textbooks and ran over to Stella’s. With a large coffee beside me, I began to read. I stayed up till two, bathing in urban planning terminology and theories. The process of learning about things you really care about is amazing. As I sat there on a Thursday night, excited about garden cities and Jane Jacobs, I realized how lucky I was.
We get so much advice. Apply for this job, take the LSAT, be in this major, get practical skills, have the time of your life, follow your passion. Most of the time, it’s about starting some new habit or path. But his advice was so simple: Value what you already have. It’s so easy, sometimes, to forget the beauty in education. We get caught up in prelim schedules and papers, which are juggled with co-curricular obligations and jobs. We forget, at times, our immense privilege.
I know most of us are eagerly running toward Fall Break, ready for a few days of vacation. But I urge you: Find purpose in your education. Find things that excite you in the classroom, and do them. Students often advocate to get involved on campus, and I wholeheartedly agree that investing in our community is important, but I would argue that investing in your education is of equal priority.
Katerina Athanasiou is a senior in the College of Art, Architecture, and planning. She may be reacched at email@example.com. Kat’s Cradle runs alternate Thursdays this semester.