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  • Department of Global Development
  • Global Development

Meet Sadie Groberg ’24, an undergraduate in Global Development who seeks to make the world a better place through criminal justice reform. During her time at Cornell, Sadie gained unique insights into the carceral system through her research on the sociology of prisons and engaged work with the Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP). As she prepares to graduate, Sadie now shares with us her academic journey towards understanding the carceral system, and her plans to continue advocating for justice as a Mitigation Investigator for incarcerated individuals in Austin, Texas. 

 

First things first, tell us more about your research focus, the sociology of prisons. 

In my first few semesters at Cornell, I took a lot of classes in Global Development, but also in the fields of sociology and inequalities. Interestingly, the carceral system was something that stood out to me in a lot of these classes. I felt like prison was this invisible string running through all the systems of privilege, status, and identity in American society. 

Luckily, my academic advisor, Dr. Tess Pendergrast, has years of experience in this field and was able to guide me through some of my interests and confusion. Dr. Pendergrast and I collaborated on a curriculum for my independent study, including readings and research assignments. 

She was able to help me make sense of my big questions, like “Why do people commit violence?” and “Are people really either just ‘good’ or ‘bad’?” By setting the foundation of looking at the carceral system through a sociological perspective, I was then able to go into my engaged work with a clearer mindset and a better understanding of my own ethos. 

While at Cornell you’ve had the opportunity to work with the Cornell Prison Education Program. What did that experience look like? 

The Cornell Prison Education Program, or CPEP, is a college program for individuals incarcerated in upstate New York facilities. The courses are taught by Cornell professors and graduate students, and participants can achieve an associate degree or a Cornell Certificate in Liberal Arts. As an undergraduate, I’ve volunteered as both a classroom teaching assistant and a study hall tutor. This means that once a week throughout the semester, I drive to a facility and work with students within the prison’s school building. 

What are you learning here that you know you could not learn in the classroom

The human impact of a program like CPEP is incredible. Each of the participants has a unique story to tell and has taught me more about the world than I could ever learn in a Cornell classroom. Most importantly, my experience with CPEP has reminded me to recognize the incredible opportunities I have been given and to value the privilege of my education. 

Although my CPEP students may have had less formal educational experience than me, they are some of the most intellectually driven people I have ever met. By witnessing their work ethic and the sacrifices that they make to better themselves within prison, I myself have become a better student.

Are there any courses that were particularly impactful to you that revolve around your research focus?  

During the fall of my sophomore year, I took Professor Jamila Michener’s course called Health Equity, Policy, and Politics. The unit on healthcare in prisons was both fascinating and horrifying, as I learned for the first time about the human rights violations occurring in prisons across the country. Additionally, Professor Joe Margulies’ Crime and Punishment course provides a strong introduction to the American carceral system, and Professor Bruce Levitt’s Cages & Creativity is a great foray into the impact of artistic programming in prisons. 

The common thread here is that each of these professors work with CPEP or other programs that allow them to support incarcerated individuals in their academic, legal, or creative journeys. I am incredibly grateful for this community of educators at Cornell who have guided me toward criminal justice reform work. 

What is one lesson you learned in this program a that you know you’ll never forget? 

In the context of criminal justice reform, I have often heard the phrase “You are not your worst mistake.” Like many others, I readily accepted this statement, happy to mentally separate my hardworking students from the crimes they have committed. But over the past year, I’ve learned that this isn’t completely true. None of my students have ever forgotten the mistakes that they’ve made or the choices that have brought them to where they are. For some of them, their worst mistakes are integral to who they are and the people they’ve become. It’s easy to separate “good” and “bad” people in our heads, but it’s much harder to recognize the nuances of the human experience and of crime. 

We should not be defined by our worst mistakes, but I’ve learned that it would also be wrong to pretend they don’t exist. 

Any other favorite Cornell memories that you’d like to reflect on?

My favorite memory with CPEP was one that happened just this week – attending the 2024 graduation ceremony at Cayuga Correctional Facility. I had the honor of witnessing thirteen CPEP students receive their associate degree and celebrating them alongside their family members. As my own graduation nears, I feel incredibly grateful for the opportunities to have taught and been taught during my years here. 

Any plans after graduation?

After graduation, I will be moving to Austin, Texas and working as a Mitigation Investigator at a non-profit law firm. This role will allow me to interact directly with incarcerated clients and assist on the building of their clemency cases as well as re-entry preparation. I am eager to gain further engaged experience before deciding whether a graduate degree is in my future, and I feel lucky to be returning to a company that I know will support my passions. 

Is there anything else that you want to share?  

If you are age 21 or older, you can apply to the Cornell Prison Education Program as an undergraduate teaching assistant. Whether you are interested in justice reform or teaching or none of the above, I would highly recommend considering participating. 

About the author

Sadie Groberg '24

Headshot of Sadie Groberg

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