Otterbein Brings Freedom of Thought to Incarcerated Students in Marion, Ohio

Posted Aug 22, 2019

By Roberto Ponce, Otterbein executive director of marketing and communication

I began driving to Marion, Ohio, around 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon. Kathryn Plank, interim associate vice president for academic affairs, graciously invited me to join a group of colleagues to observe the last class of Otterbein’s Summer Humanities Seminar at the Marion Correctional Institution (MCI). I’ve never been inside a prison in the U.S., so I didn’t know what to expect. If anything, I was a little apprehensive. I won’t bore you with details about the drive, but I do want to describe what I witnessed upon arrival.

A few colleagues were already at the main entrance. Provost Wendy Sherman Heckler came out of the main doors to receive our team. We waited for a few minutes to go through security, which involved two checkpoints on either side of a gated courtyard. No wallets, electronic devices, or keys were allowed; only a small note pad and a pen.

Once we passed through the electrically controlled, barred doors, we walked through a corridor with no windows, only artificial light. When I heard the click of the door’s lock behind us, I sensed something within me. I instantly learned that there were two worlds: the world inside and the world outside. And I was inside.

Brandon came to receive us. He walked us to the room where he and other students spent 10 weeks taking classes together. This room may not have had the latest classroom technology, but it did have a group of men eager to learn from a group of Otterbein faculty volunteering their time to teach.

The Summer Humanities Seminar is comprised of five mini-courses: Critical Reading and Writing Across Disciplines, Biology and Nature, Philosophy, Health and Humanities, and Reflecting on Learning in the Humanities.

These mini-courses were all taught with a focus on the humanities by Otterbein faculty members Anthony DeStefanis, Kathryn Plank, Simon Lawrance, Anna Young, Bridget Newell, Samantha Boch, and Shannon Lakanen, who volunteered their summer to teach at MCI. Although assistant professor Jessie Glover did not teach in the seminar, she held her own project through the Theater of Conviction, a theater company at MCI.

Once in the classroom, I encountered a diverse group of students. They came from different races, ethnicities, religions and ages, but they all shared a desire to learn and treated each other with respect and camaraderie.

Associate Professor Shannon Lakanen led the last class. She had each of us introduce ourselves, mingle and sit next to people we didn’t know. We broke bread together. It was during this time that I had the chance to interview a few students. So, with their permission, I will share some of their testimonials. Their real names will not be revealed.

“This was a cool term, but not long enough. By the time you were getting familiar with the subject, the course was over.” – Black

“We went over the definition of humanities and we all wrote an essay. I understand better what it means to be human and I enjoyed being allowed to be seen as a human and not as an animal.” – Tone.

“This class taught me how to ask questions.” – Brandon.

“I enjoyed the way everyone respected each other and I learned how to respect other people’s issues.” – Jim.

“This environment has been electrifying, thank you for letting us come.” – AV

At the end of the evening there was pomp and circumstance as we all enjoyed a mini graduation ceremony. Students received their certificates, transcripts and grade.

And of course, as with in any ceremony, Otterbein President John Comerford delivered a speech.

“You may not be physically free, but you have achieved mental and intellectual freedom,” said Comerford. “You have the ability to think for yourselves and that is what humanities are all about.”

To conclude the evening, Lakanen shared with us that doing this work has changed her life personally, professionally, and spiritually. Then she simply said “Thank you.”