Rachel Harmon '15
Cornell Prison Education Program
Through the Cornell Prison Education Program, I was a teaching assistant at the Auburn Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison about 45 minutes from Ithaca. It is one of the few programs like it in the nation, and it was an incredible experience. It opened my eyes to a lot of social issues, particularly the relationship between incarceration and disadvantage and how that all comes back to labor relations and issues of economic opportunity.
The classroom evolves over the semester—more so than in many other educational settings. Each side comes with its own assumptions, fears and hopes. You have to bridge those, and it’s important to do that early on and find a commonality. It’s surprisingly easy to do, because we are all human.
I taught a writing workshop, in which teaching assistants presented on different days than the instructors. Normally, you’d go with the instructor and sit in and help during the class, but in the workshop, TAs led the session. We actually put classes together, and worked to complement what the instructors were teaching.
As a Hunter Rawlings Presidential Research Scholar, I had a tremendous opportunity to connect with ILR faculty, even as a freshman. I also received the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Scholarship, which is research focused.
Before coming to Cornell, I took a gap year. I lived in the Mississippi Delta and was a reading tutor in an elementary school, which was another incredible experience, super eye opening. I came to Cornell passionate about the Mississippi Delta and a lot of the issues prevalent there—particularly educational and economic inequality. In the spring of my freshman year, with Professor Salvatore, I started exploring the history of social protest in the Mississippi Delta. The course Southern Labor History gave me a structural context for that analysis. I’m very interested in the South, and in efforts for social change there and how they fit into a broader framework of inequality—really persistent inequality. That’s one line of research I have done.
My second line of research started in the summer between my sophomore and junior years, when I did a project exploring the impact of incarceration rates on economic inequality. That opened up a new realm of research for me, which is looking at the socioeconomic context of incarceration—the way disadvantage feeds into incarceration and how incarceration exacerbates that disadvantage.
I was also an executive member of the Restoration Project, a new student organization devoted to issues of incarceration. We focused on solitary housing units and tried to effect policy changes within New York State. It was my first experience with policy work.