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SUNY Potsdam Selected as New Second Chance Pell Experimental Site, to Offer Postsecondary Education in Prison

May 8, 2020

SUNY Potsdam Partners with St. Lawrence University to Offer Sociology Baccalaureate Program at Riverview Correctional Facility in Ogdensburg, N.Y.

The U.S. Department of Education announced last week that SUNY Potsdam has been included in the expansion of the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative to provide need-based Pell grants to people in state and federal prisons.

Thanks to this federal initiative, SUNY Potsdam will now be able to offer a Bachelor of Arts degree program in sociology, including a minor in human services, to Pell-eligible students at Riverview Correctional Facility in Ogdensburg, N.Y.

Through partnering with community agencies in St. Lawrence County, the program will include stackable credentials, such as peer recovery coach and mental health first aid certifications—all designed to effectively position participants for employment after release from prison, with a clear pathway to graduate within four years. St. Lawrence University, Canton, will serve as the junior partner for the project, providing one course per semester. SUNY Potsdam plans to enroll up to 34 students in the initiative’s first year.

The Second Chance Pell program at Riverview builds on an existing collaborative relationship developed initially by St. Lawrence faculty who have taught courses there for the past four years, and by faculty and staff from both colleges who together built the Prison Education through College Outreach consortium. Seed funding for that consortium was provided by the Associated Colleges of the St. Lawrence Valley.

“SUNY Potsdam is proud to be able to offer a clear pathway to a better future through the transformative Second Chance Pell program. We look forward to partnering with St. Lawrence University to offer a rigorous undergraduate experience for eligible incarcerated students,” said President Dr. Kristin G. Esterberg. “Our campus prides itself on our successful track record in serving first-generation college students, students from underrepresented groups and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. SUNY Potsdam is well prepared to help our Second Chance Pell students achieve their educational and career goals, while they complete their rehabilitation.”

“The St. Lawrence community’s shared desire to contribute to a more equitable society is among the primary reasons we wanted to partner with SUNY Potsdam on this important work,” said St. Lawrence University President Dr. William L. Fox. “This program will provide numerous benefits to all students thanks to the commitment of the St. Lawrence faculty involved with SUNY Potsdam.”

Currently, there are 63 colleges that teach in 26 states participating in Second Chance Pell; this second cohort of 67 new schools will bring the total to 130 colleges in 42 states and the District of Columbia. SUNY Potsdam is one of only two State University of New York institutions to be chosen for the second round of the program, along with SUNY Adirondack, and is one of very few colleges to award bachelor’s degrees.

The vast majority of incarcerated people will one day return home, and providing access to postsecondary education in prison means that these individuals are far less likely to recidivate and are better equipped to play productive and positive roles within their communities. Access to postsecondary education also improves prison safety for both incarcerated people and corrections employees alike.

The sociology major is a good fit for this student population, said program director Dr. Nancy Lewis, an associate professor of sociology and criminal justice studies at SUNY Potsdam.

“Many people I work with in custody and following release identify careers helping others as pathways to productive lives, allowing them to give back to their families and communities. The Department of Labor identifies community development, social services and substance abuse treatment as areas of above average job growth. This degree will provide a productive pathway forward as the students rebuild their lives,” Lewis said.

The Vera Institute of Justice has been providing technical assistance to the participating colleges and corrections departments since the initiative’s inception, working to ensure that the programs provide quality higher education in prison and post-release.

“This expansion of Second Chance Pell will improve lives and strengthen communities,” said Nick Turner, president and director of the Vera Institute of Justice. “The expansion is also a testament to the fact that broader access to college in prison is a strategy that works—to improve safety and expand opportunity in our country.”

SUNY Potsdam and St. Lawrence have both actively engaged in offering both non-credit and credit-bearing opportunities at local correctional facilities. A cohort of St. Lawrence faculty members, led by Charles A. Dana professor of history Liz Regosin, offer two credit-bearing courses per semester at Riverview, while SUNY Potsdam faculty have offered three introductory-level college courses for credit during the past two years at the St. Lawrence County Correctional Facility in Canton.

St. Lawrence University faculty facilitate a book club and offer weekly stress and anxiety workshops at Riverview, while students visit weekly to play board games with confined individuals. SUNY Potsdam faculty and students developed a Seventh Step peer support group, mindfulness programs and a book club for women, as well as a weekly re-entry program at the county jail. Rivka Rocchio, an assistant professor of theatre and dance, has facilitated a drama club at Riverview since 2016, and created the Playwriting Across Prison Walls Festival, which brings 10-minute plays written by incarcerated individuals to the stage, as performed by undergraduates at SUNY Potsdam.

“I’ve had the pleasure of visiting several Second Chance Pell institutions and have seen firsthand the transformative impact this experiment has on the lives of individuals who are incarcerated,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. “By expanding this experiment, we are providing a meaningful opportunity for more students to set themselves up for future success in the workforce. The stories I’ve heard from students and institutions engaged in the experiment are very encouraging, and we look forward to seeing how this expansion will help even more students achieve a better future.”

To see a full list of sites selected in the second cohort of Second Chance Pell, visit the U.S. Department of Education’s website here.

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 3,600 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

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