Tara Timberman, an assistant professor of English at the College, put 15 of her students in prison for at least one night a week for 15 weeks last fall. There, they met with 15 inmates to take a public speaking class.
The class, which took place at the Cambria Community Center, a minimum-security prison in North Philadelphia, was a cooperative effort of the College, the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program based at Temple University and the Philadelphia Prison System. The Inside-Out program works on the hypothesis that incarcerated men and women and college students might mutually benefit from studying crime, justice and related social issues together as peers.
During each class, students discussed or presented on topics related to criminal justice, including urban culture; prison life; education before, during and after incarceration; the role of the family and leaders in underprivileged communities; street culture; and other related issues. After researching the topic of their choice, students presented short oral reports individually or in small groups.
Timberman's intent was to change or widen the perspective of the entire class by dispelling preconceived ideas and stereotypes held by both sides. The students said she succeeded.
Philadelphia Police Detective Sgt. Brian Sprowal, a graduate of the College, is the last person anyone would expect to find seated in a classroom alongside convicted felons. The inmates greeted him with hostility at the first class, refusing to even sit next to him. Their attitude changed significantly over the next 15 weeks. By then, Sprowal was a friend and someone to look up to as a mentor.
Sprowal believes that the 15 felons are on a path to becoming law abiding, tax-paying citizens. "I have committed to funding one three-credit class for at least three of these guys if they enroll in Community College of Philadelphia after their release," he said at the closing ceremony of the class in December.
Sprowal knows the value of a financial helping hand. He attended Community College of Philadelphia with the help of a Kal and Lucille Rudman Foundation scholarship and earned an associate’s degree in May 2009. He currently is attending Gwynedd-Mercy College to complete his bachelor’s degree. He took Timberman’s Inside-Out class as an elective. He said his involvement in the class was a good public relations move for the Philadelphia Police Department, which has had seven officers killed in the line of duty since May 2006.
"These are 15 men who I guarantee won’t present a risk for a Philadelphia police officer," Sprowal said. "I believe the relationship we’ve built up would make these men think twice before hurting a cop."
All of the Cambria inmates expressed plans to attend the College after being released from jail. Timberman has promised to help them navigate the admissions process. The students from the outside—some of them ex-offenders—said they were willing to act as mentors and life coaches to the inmates.
Sharon Thompson, the College’s associate vice president for Academic Affairs and dean of Liberal Studies, said Timberman has "kindled an interest and reinvigorated" the College’s interest in serving ex-offenders, who often lack the education and skills they need to find legitimate work.
"It is wonderful for students to have the benefit of Tara as a teacher and to share their interests and experiences," said Thompson. "It gives the men who are incarcerated a chance to say, ‘Hey, I can do this. I can take on a college-level class and succeed.’ For our students, it gives them an opportunity to see life on the inside and have a different perspective."
During the fall 2009 session, Timberman recruited 10 ex-offenders who never previously thought college would be an option. She feels an empathy with the prisoners because she was a rebellious teenager from rural South Jersey who flirted with danger on the streets of Philadelphia while in high school. She admits to being an indifferent student, except for Art and English, where she earned top grades.
"Most assumed that because I spent more time being rebellious than scholastically minded that my unruly nature made up my entire identity," she said. Timberman proved them wrong by attending Rowan University, then known as Glassboro State College, where she excelled and earned a bachelor’s degree in English, followed by a master’s degree in English from Rutgers University in Camden.
"All those ineffective teachers and people that questioned my ability to be successful in life became my source of motivation for me to pursue a career in education," said Timberman, who is the first in her blue-collar family to graduate from college.
When Cumberland County College offered her a job teaching college-level English classes in an all-male, medium security federal prison in 2004, Timberman found her mission.
"I didn't realize until I stepped foot on the compound the first day that certain features of my past, that I had worked hard to disassociate myself from, would be the very features that would make me so successful working in that environment," she said. "I also didn't realize that I would come face to face with the harsh reality of what too often happens to minorities, particularly African-American males, who grow up in this country and come from families with generational histories of being impoverished."
Timberman knows that not every prisoner in her classes will achieve a career. Education will not guarantee you a job, she tells them, but it will increase the odds in your favor.
Inside-Out was founded in 1997 by Lori Pompa, a Criminal Justice professor at Temple University. Timberman is one of more than 200 people from 35 states who have trained as instructors for the program.
This has been a hectic year for Joy Woods Jones, the winner of the Local Chef Competition sponsored by the College and The 10! Show on NBC 10 television.
As The 10! Show’s official chef, Jones must make 10 appearances on the popular mid-morning show demonstrating recipes and handing out cooking tips. That is on top of taking care of her husband; her four kids, who still live at home; and her job as project coordinator for Grandma’s Kids, a kinship family support program at Temple University.
Last September, Jones added yet another task to an already overloaded to-do list by enrolling in a class on American Cuisine at the College. The class is part of the College’s Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management program, and it meets 8 a.m.–1 p.m. on Tuesdays. It is a struggle for Jones to make every class, and she admits being tardy more than once.
The opportunity to take one free CAHM class was part of the prize offered to the winner of the Local Chef competition. Jones feels obligated to make the most of the opportunity that for her is a labor of love. "I love it," said Jones, 42. "I feel like I am learning a lot."
She said she chose the four-credit class for its intensity and the expansiveness of the coursework covered by the instructor, chef Paul McCormick. "There are so many things about food that you would never have a clue about that I have learned," Jones said. One surprising recipe was for a soup made with tripe, a.k.a. cow’s stomach. "I would have never thought that something that sounds and looks so gross, could taste so good," she said. "It’s very different from the way I cook at home."
On The 10! Show, Jones sticks to more mundane fare, primarily because she has to pay for the ingredients herself. "I always do two dishes and a beverage, so I keep the ingredients simple to stay within my budget," she said. The quick and simple dishes she stirs up for the show— like egg burritos, pancake sundaes, and cashew chicken—are drawn from her years of cooking for her family.
In what little spare time she has, Jones is working on a cookbook that is sure to include her signature recipe for Mac and Cheese Smothered Fried Chicken. She describes it as a "funny cookbook about my life in food."
When NBC 10 television assigned reporter Tim Furlong to do a series profiling student success stories at Community College of Philadelphia, his editors may not have realized his interest in postsecondary education. Furlong, who teaches broadcast news at Widener University, is passionate about higher education. Furlong’s enthusiasm spilled over into his series spotlighting three current students and a graduate whose lives were improved by their College experience.
"The beauty of Community College of Philadelphia is that you can use your degree either to forward your education or use the degree to get a good job right away," Furlong said in the intro to the series that aired on The 10! Show during the week of Dec. 14.
The first student profiled was Art and Design student Gregory Fortunato, 20, who started at the College last year after a disappointing term at an industrial design college in Boston. Fortunato said he is confident that the education he is receiving at the College will enable him to build a portfolio that will get him into a four-year arts school.
Coleen Kinlin, 31, a graduate of the Collegeís Paralegal program, has returned to study Geographic Information Systems for training that will be useful in her job in the Philadelphia City Solicitorís Office, where she is a contract conformance manager. Kinlin had a bachelorís degree in Hotel Restaurant Management from the University of Delaware before she decided to change careers to study to be a paralegal. After just seven months in the Collegeís Paralegal program, Kinlin was prepared to start her new career.
Matthew Wynne, 27, is an artist studying to become a nurse. Wynne studied Art at the College after graduating high school in 2000. However, after a few years trying to break out as a painter, he decided it was not the right fit for him. He hopes to graduate from the Nursing program in May.
Marcella Stokes, 29, came to the College after her discharge from the U.S. Army. She received an associate’s degree in Engineering Science, before transferring to earn her bachelor’s degree at Drexel University. Today, Stokes works for the federal government managing projects in government-owned facilities that involve heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, as well as renewable energy and other mechanical systems. "I could have gone anywhere, but I chose here," Stokes said during a return visit to the College in December. "I have never regretted the decision."