There is a story you hear about young people nowadays. It’s cobbled from bits and bobs scattered across space and time. An episode in Tucson is stitched to an example from Tampa and pretty soon someone gathers all the adjectives together to create a profile: Entitled. Pampered. And most of all, obsessed with identity and identity politics. The young, we are often told, are so busy erupting in outrage over every imagined affront to their innumerable identities that they have no time for anything else, and certainly not THE SERIOUS THINGS that really matter in the world. Young people are a bunch of snowflakes.
That, at least, is what you hear.
Whoever came up with this profile, and everyone who believes it, needs to spend more time with college students. Not the drive-by caricature you read about, but the great many undergraduates who are simultaneously carrying a full academic load, holding down a job, and donating their time. These are the folks who will change the world.
I teach at Cornell University in upstate New York, where I have the privilege of working with the students in the Cornell University Parole Initiative. CUPI is an all-volunteer organization conceived, created, and run entirely by Cornell undergraduates. Befitting the singular role that students play in CUPI, I will let them describe what they do:
We pair Cornell students with currently incarcerated individuals serving life sentences in NY State prisons. The undergraduates work on teams of three with the incarcerated individual to help them prepare for a parole hearing in the coming 8-10 months. The project focuses on relationship building first and critical advocacy and support second. The volunteer team ultimately prepares a parole packet that contains an advocacy letter, a personal statement, certificates, letters of support, a release plan, and much more. They also work extensively through visitation and phone communication on interview preparation for the applicant. Our work is guided by the expertise and desires of the incarcerated applicant and their families.
But this paragraph doesn’t fully capture the important work that CUPI does. Setting aside the political and epistemological incongruity of it all, what the students do is help people who were sentenced to spend the rest of their life behind bars, and who have already served decades in high security prisons, convince a group of strangers that they deserve to be free. The setting for this event is a parole hearing, and if calling it a hearing conjures an image of procedural rigor and due process, you should banish that from your mind. The New York parole system has come under withering criticism. An average hearing will last about 15 minutes. The incarcerated person might have about 180 seconds to convince people he has never met that he has earned the right to be free. And he has to do this in a cultural and political environment that believes he is a monster and that is all too eager to bury him in his worst mistake. And you thought you had high-stakes interviews.
Anything that an incarcerated person wants the parole board to know, but that cannot fit in those three minutes, has to be included in his “parole packet.” The future he has planned. The past he laments. The distance he has traveled. The skills he has mastered and the potential he represents. And most of all, the insight he has achieved. Insight into the life he took and the pain he caused; insight into the life he hopes to build and the good he wants to do. Why he deserves another chance. That’s what goes in the parole packet.
In New York, as in many states, a person’s freedom turns on a brief interview and a parole packet. CUPI volunteers help New York prisoners prepare for the former and assemble the latter.
I am the faculty director for CUPI, but this title risks overstating my role. CUPI is emphatically a student group. A small leadership team, headed by two co-presidents who came up through the organization, recruits, trains, and supervises approximately 50 volunteers. They also field the growing number of requests for assistance from prisoners with upcoming parole dates, and develop and maintain relationships with the prison administration. Though Cornell University provides a small grant to help defray the cost of postage, gas, phones, etc., it is never enough. Students invariably end up shelling out their own money to support their work. And it’s a ton of work. Dakota Stennett-Neris, one of the co-presidents and a Cornell senior, estimates that a team of students will devote between 150 and 250 hours on each parole packet.
When I hear people talk about snowflakes, I think about students like Dakota. Born and raised in Harlem, to which she is fiercely loyal, Dakota is one of those students who restores a teacher’s faith in the future. I don’t know how she has time to do all that she does on campus; I get tired just hearing her schedule. I have never turned over one of my lectures to an undergraduate, but Dakota is so talented that I invited her to lecture to my criminal justice class of 140 students about the complex relationship between crime and community in Harlem. Yet she also somehow has time to co-direct CUPI, which means she not only handles her own cases but assists in the recruitment, training, and supervision of the other volunteers. She’s 21.
The students in CUPI approach their work with an enviable seriousness and maturity. And as they say to me, they don’t play. CUPI has become known as one of the most engaged student groups on campus, providing a real-life experience that genuinely matters. For that reason, it is increasingly attractive to students who, unfortunately, are more interested in padding their resume than doing the work. While I might struggle to distinguish the posers from the real thing, the leadership team at CUPI knows bullshit when they see it. They have no trouble identifying the applicants who want to be part of CUPI for all the wrong reasons and are likewise perfectly willing to call out a student volunteer who isn’t pulling their weight.
The students are not allowed to attend parole hearings, but if they asked me (and they haven’t) I would say that’s a good thing. Their job is not to speak for the people inside, but to help them speak for themselves. After all, when a person gets out of prison they won’t have anyone standing next to them telling them what to say or speaking on their behalf. Though I would never compare my work to that of the students, I view my job in similar terms. My role, in CUPI and as a faculty member at Cornell, is not to do for students, but to enable them to do for themselves so that they might do for others.
I write about Cornell because that’s what I know. But as much as I enjoy working with Cornell undergraduates, I’m sure they’re not unique. Students across the country could do the same thing as the volunteers in CUPI, and if not for people in prison then for some other worthy and underserved population. For those of you who think there’s something special about the fact that Cornell is an Ivy League institution, think again. There are hundreds of excellent colleges all over the country, public and private, and if students aren’t similarly engaged at the campus nearest you, it’s because the college administration hasn’t done enough to enable their success. Don’t blame the students.
To those who are no longer young or young at heart, and who lament what they imagine to be a youth culture that will never amount to anything, a culture that is overly concerned with frivolous things, I would offer only this advice: Get the hell out of the way and let the young get on with the serious business of fixing the world our generation has broken.