Instagram Combined Shape quotation Created with Sketch. 69

SUNY Potsdam Celebrates First Commencement for Potsdam@RCF Program

November 14, 2023
SUNY Potsdam Honors First Class of Graduates at Riverview Correctional Facility 

SUNY Potsdam President Dr. Suzanne Smith presents a diploma to Robert Smith during SUNY Potsdam’s commencement ceremony at the Riverview Correctional Facility in Ogdensburg on October 27, 2023. Smith was one of eight students who completed their bachelor’s degrees in sociology within the walls of RCF as part of a federally recognized Second Chance Pell program. Photo by Ayisha Khalid ’24

SUNY Potsdam recently marked a milestone, as the College held its inaugural Commencement ceremony for graduates in its degree completion program located at Riverview Correctional Facility in Ogdensburg, N.Y. 

The first Potsdam@RCF graduates marked the completion of their Bachelor of Arts degrees in sociology with a small but joyous ceremony on Oct. 27, in the gymnasium at Riverview, joined by family and friends, as well as the faculty members and correctional officials who helped make the program possible. 

“Watching the graduating students shake hands with President Smith was one of the highlights of my career. Five years ago, I couldn't imagine two more unlikely partners as corrections and academia working together to achieve such public good,” said Dr. Nancy Lewis, director of the program and a professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice. “Together with our Riverview Correctional Facility (RCF) partners, we have created opportunities for people to succeed and build strong families and safer communities.” 

Eight graduates crossed the stage to receive their diplomas, all of whom were graduating with honors. The SUNY Potsdam graduates included: 

  • Maurice Battle ’23, summa cum laude 
  • Shawn Gregory Granger ’23, summa cum laude 
  • Andre Duayne Jon-Hope ’23, summa cum laude 
  • Brandon Rodriguez ’23, summa cum laude 
  • Rob Smith ’23, summa cum laude 
  • Gregory Watson ’23, magna cum laude 
  • Jake D. Winters ’23, summa cum laude 
  • Christopher Paul Woods ’23, summa cum laude


Photo by Ayisha Khalid '24

“Even though the SUNY Potsdam at Riverview program is relatively new, our two organizations have long been closely connected: We are both important economic engines for the North Country. There are families (and some households) that have members who work at Riverview and at Potsdam, and many of the staff and administration at Riverview have degrees (in some cases, several degrees) from SUNY Potsdam,” said President Dr. Suzanne Smith. “And just as our pasts are tied together, so are our futures… both SUNY Potsdam and Riverview are committed to the continued success of this program, as are, I’m pleased to say, SUNY Higher Education in Prison and DOCCS.” 

Musicians from The Crane School of Music provided the ceremonial accompaniment to the ceremony, including the Frackenpohl Honors Brass Quintet and vocalist Maria Tartaglia ’27. 

SUNY Potsdam alumna Heidi Czerepak ’15 & ’17, clinical director at North Country Freedom Homes, gave the keynote address. She shared how she overcame addiction and incarceration to complete her bachelor’s degree in English and her master’s in community health at SUNY Potsdam, ultimately pursuing a career in recovery treatment. 

“The narrative about what kinds of people become addicted, have mental health issues and/or become incarcerated needs to change. Social determinants, including adverse childhood experiences, play significant roles in these pathways, and we need to create more opportunities and services that foster healing, relationship building, education, job opportunities and safe housing,” Czerepak said. “SUNY Potsdam accepted me back in 2014 on academic probation, and I saw that as an opportunity to prove that I am trustworthy, committed and worth investing in. I can never thank SUNY enough for giving me that chance. Today I give back in any way I can.” 

Guests and partners from the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and from SUNY also spoke at the ceremony, which also honored five students earning degrees from partner schools. 

Photo by Ayisha Khalid '24

Photo by Ayisha Khalid '24

Photo by Ayisha Khalid '24

Photo by Ayisha Khalid '24

Photo by Ayisha Khalid '24

Photo by Ayisha Khalid '24

Photo by Ayisha Khalid '24

“I want to thank all our RCF students for making a 100 percent commitment to the program. I want to thank you for supporting each other academically and for caring deeply for each other personally. I want to thank you for putting your academics first, in an environment where that can often be difficult. I want to thank you for making a commitment to your future, whatever that future may hold. And finally, I want to thank you for the respect, understanding and professionalism that you have shown to me,” said Interim Provost Dr. Alan Hersker, who himself has taught an introductory cultural anthropology course at RCF through the program.  

Maurice Battle ’23, who was graduating summa cum laude, was chosen by his classmates to deliver an address to the graduates.  

“Plenty of people are aware of what the world seems to lack. But only a significant few can see the boundless opportunities that are prevalent, everywhere. We have the opportunity to be amongst that significant few,” Battle said. “Because what may have once appeared in our lives to be insurmountable mountains, perhaps now—with possession of a sociological imagination and use of scientific methods—those societal mountains can now be viewed through sociological concepts such as intersectionality and stratification, as simply a maturation (a growth) of mole hills that can be traversed.” 

Brandon Rodriguez ’23 also spoke to the Class of 2023 graduates. He began the Potsdam@RCF program behind bars and later transitioned to finishing his coursework on campus, following his release in January 2023. After completing a prestigious internship with the Ford Foundation, he is the founder and interim director of Second Chance Scholars, a non-profit organization dedicated to bridging the gap between college in prison and college in the community.

“I am proud of all of our Potsdam@RCF students who engage in their education to move their lives in a different direction. They have chosen to find hope and a positive future in a place where both are in short supply. I am very proud of the SUNY Potsdam community. It has taken a village to make this program successful. The Potsdam staff and faculty have overcome substantial challenges and created new processes to make this program successful.”

Nancy Lewis Director of the program and a professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice

Potsdam@RCF is one of a select few baccalaureate programs offered through the Second Chance Pell Experiment, created by the U.S. Department of Education to help incarcerated individuals access higher education, with the goal of better preparing them for reentry into the job market and society. SUNY Potsdam became the first comprehensive campus in the State University of New York to offer a bachelor’s degree through the program in 2020, joining 11 other community colleges offering associate degree programs at institutions across the state. 

The Potsdam@RCF program allows students to complete a sociology degree, and add a minor in human services, or complete credentials such as peer recovery coach or mental health first aid. 

SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice offers majors and minors in both sociology and criminal justice, as well as minors in human services and social justice. The department also plays an important role in both the women’s and gender studies and environmental studies programs. To learn more, visit 

About SUNY Potsdam:  

Founded in 1816, The State University of New York at Potsdam is one of America’s first 50 colleges—and the oldest institution within SUNY. Now in its third century, SUNY Potsdam is distinguished by a legacy of pioneering programs and educational excellence. The College currently enrolls approximately 2,500 undergraduate and graduate students. Home to the world-renowned Crane School of Music, SUNY Potsdam is known for its challenging liberal arts and sciences core, distinction in teacher training and culture of creativity. To learn more, visit 

For Media Inquiries

Alexandra Jacobs Wilke 315-267-2918

General News Arts & Culture