News | Student Life

Formerly incarcerated students seek support at GSSC town hall

Citing prejudice and institutional barriers to education, two students asked General Studies Student Council to provide support for formerly incarcerated students at a GSSC town hall meeting on Tuesday night.

In an exchange that lasted for the majority of the town hall, Leyla Martinez, GS ’17, and Sarah Zarba, Social Work ’19, requested that the council back an initiative to remove questions about criminal history from the School of General Studies application and co-sponsor an upcoming panel on the experiences of formerly incarcerated students like themselves.

Martinez said that she has previously met with Vice Dean of the School of General Studies Curtis Rodgers to discuss removing sections regarding criminal history from the school’s application—with limited success—and asked that the council formally back her proposal. She said that while she would willingly have written about her past incarceration in her application, other students might be disadvantaged by having to answer such a question.

“When I first started and got to that question, I was like, ‘Fuck this. Why should I finish the application?’” Martinez said. “But it shows my resilience; it shows I’m not my crime, I’ve overcome that, that this is who I am now. But I’m not sure everyone else will feel this way.”

While GSSC did not vote on whether to pass a resolution supporting Martinez’s push for removal of that section of the application, several representatives said they agreed with her.

“Everyone at GS would agree that we believe in second chances. We all got one ourselves. I definitely support removing that [criminal history] box. Just because you did something in the past shouldn’t stop you from getting an education,” Vice President of Communications Dennis Zhao, GS ’18, said.

Chief Policy Representative Michael Higgins, GS ’18 also voiced support, adding that he agreed with Martinez’s statement that black and Latinx people are more likely to face incarceration and the baggage that follows.

“I 100 percent agree with what she’s saying about the box. It’s not just a question, it’s a stigma. Anyone who’s ever been incarcerated or ever been arrested understands,” Higgins said. “They [application readers] are going to say, this person has an issue, this person has baggage, and they’re going to move on.”

Martinez and Zarba also asked the council to co-sponsor an event focusing on criminal justice reform and the experience of formerly incarcerated students, including a panel featuring White House staffer Elias Alcantara and Columbia Center for Justice Director Geraldine Downey. Because the formerly incarcerated students organizing the event are not yet a recognized student group, however, they could not apply for a joint council co-sponsorship.

GSSC did not vote on whether to co-sponsor the event, instead asking Martinez to provide more details about its budget. The event will cost approximately $4,600 in transportation fees for guests and refreshment spending, according to Martinez.

Later on in the town hall, Faviana Fabiano, GS ’17, asked the council to organize a discussion among students about community standards for the school. Fabiano said that while the GS Office of the Dean of Students held a town hall on Sept. 20, the presence of administrators felt like that of a “parent” controlling the discussion.

While representatives acknowledged Fabiano’s concerns, they questioned the need for GSSC to organize such a forum outside of their existing town halls.

“The role of representatives on council is not to mediate so much as to facilitate student needs,” University Senator Ramond Curtis, GS ’19, said.

aaron.holmes@columbiaspectator.com | @AaronPHolmes

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