As she steps inside the prison and the bars clank behind her, Ayisha Khalid ’24 enters a world unlike anything she has seen before.
A Department of Corrections employee ushers her past walls of barbed wires, living quarters for the incarcerated, and an array of outdoor basketball courts into a large gymnasium where rows of inmates are stretching their bodies in stress-relieving postures. She lifts her camera and gets to work, capturing photos of students in the unique yoga class—part of the Potsdam@RCF program, a federally recognized Second Chance Pell program that allows incarcerated individuals at the Riverview Correctional Facility (RCF) to complete bachelor’s degrees in sociology through SUNY Potsdam. This fall she returned to RCF to photograph the first cohort of eight students receiving their degrees during a rare commencement ceremony within the walls of prison.
“My time at SUNY Potsdam has been a transformative journey, marked by experiences that have left an indelible mark on my perspective and personal growth. One such pivotal moment was my involvement in a photography internship with College Communications, where the lens became a powerful tool for storytelling. One of the most impactful and eye-opening experiences was my visit to RCF. Stepping into an environment that exists on the periphery of society, I confronted preconceived notions and stereotypes. Engaging with inmates through conversations and photography, I witnessed resilience and the human capacity for redemption."
The experience was a fitting assignment for someone pursuing a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies at SUNY Potsdam focused on criminal justice and political science. Combining the two fields of study, Khalid has been able to examine the inner workings of the criminal justice system, while also exploring socio-political activities around the globe. She has conducted research with Dr. Robert Hinckley on the public perception of the COVID-19 pandemic, and is now working with Dr. David Bugg on a gun violence research project, where she is gathering data from an Active Shooter Database to gain a comprehensive understanding of the use of guns throughout the U.S.
Khalid works with Dr. Hinckley as part of their research on the public perceptions of COVID-19.
“One of the highlights of my academic path has been the opportunity to study both politics and criminal justice concurrently. This interdisciplinary approach has significantly shaped my career trajectory, as it equips me with a diverse skill set and knowledge base. The ability to navigate and understand the complexities of both political and criminal justice systems positions me well for various career paths—whether it be policy analysis, law enforcement, or other related fields, my interdisciplinary degree has prepared me to address multifaceted challenges,” she said.
Outside of the classroom, Khalid has been a force for advocacy. In the fall of 2023, she organized a March for Palestine, which formed on campus and continued into downtown Potsdam. Connecting with professors and students on campus about the cause, she scheduled the event, created signs, and spoke with University Police about the safety concerns of marching alongside traffic in downtown Potsdam. “My passion for activism is fueled by a deep commitment to social justice and a desire to make a meaningful impact on issues close to my heart. One of the causes that has ignited my fervor is the plight of Palestine. The decision to arrange a march for Palestine stemmed from a sense of responsibility to shed light on the challenges faced by Palestinians and to stand in solidarity with their struggle for justice and equality,” she explained.
As an extension, Khalid’s faith has had a significant impact on her identity. She prays daily, attends the local mosque, fasts during key religious holidays like Ramadan, studies the Qur'an, and wears a hijab and Niqab to demonstrate her commitment to the Muslim faith, which she said provides her with strength, purpose, and a moral compass. “As a Muslim woman, Islam is not just a religious identity but a profound way of life that shapes my values, actions, and interactions with the world. It is a source of strength, reminding me of the resilience of the women in Islamic history and the emphasis Islam places on education, knowledge, and the pursuit of justice,” she said.
Shaped and molded by her experiences at SUNY Potsdam, Khalid has continued to find herself, explore her faith, and quell her thirst for knowledge while studying politics and criminal justice. She is currently volunteering on the New York City Bar Association’s Mass Incarceration Task Force, and this spring she will be completing an internship at the St. Lawrence Country Public Defender's Office where she will be getting a hands-on look at the legal system as it relates to criminal defendants.
“It presents a fantastic opportunity for me to delve into the inner workings of the courthouse and gain hands-on experience in the legal field. As I approach my final semester as an undergraduate, this internship feels like a crucial stepping stone in shaping my future path,” she said. “Interestingly, my visits to the Riverview Correctional Facility have further fueled my interest in the criminal justice system. Witnessing firsthand the challenges faced by individuals within the system has motivated me to explore and contribute to the field,” she said.
When she graduates in May, Khalid will be setting her sights on law school, with the ultimate goal of becoming a lawyer. “Criminal and commercial law have captured my interest, but I'm open to exploring different specializations during my legal education,” she said. “My journey at SUNY Potsdam has been more than an academic pursuit; it has been a holistic education in the human experience, leaving me with a deepened sense of purpose and a broader perspective on the world.”
Article and photos by Jason Hunter