MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS — Josephine Cochrane, who grew up in Harlem, first got the chance to go to college at age 19.
Now 63, her brief stint at Hunter College in the 1970s was overwhelming and she was unprepared.
“I left school and ran the streets,” she said. “The streets looked better than school.”
Cochrane said the streets ensnared her and, through the 1980s to the early 2000s, she was in and out of prison.
On Thursday evening, decades later, she finally got back on track.
Cochrane was not only among 13 women who received college degrees at the The Interchurch Center on Riverside Drive from various schools within the CUNY system through the College and Community Fellowship, a community organization that provides support to formerly incarcerated woman across the state pursuing higher education.
She was the salutatorian of the class.
Many former prisoners face roadblocks to higher education because of their past convictions, said Maria Santangelo, the organization’s director of programs.
“Too often there is a focus on the crime and not the rehabilitation,” Santangelo said.
But the program works diligently with the women, she said, to encourage them to pursue college, including a policy initiative to ban questions that focus on criminal pasts on college applications.
In the past 16 years, the organization has had women earn more than 300 degrees.
Cochrane, who joined the program in the early 2000s, received a bachelor’s in social work from Fordham University. Though, she admitted, it took her longer than she had hoped.
“It was a struggle financially and mentally…it was hard keeping up with the youngsters,” Cochrane said.
She said she lapsed at times, but the program motivated her to keeping going.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it, but with the help of CCF and their tutors, I made it.”
Cochrane said she plans to get a master’s degree in nonprofit management to open a halfway house for formerly incarcerated women
The graduation ceremony, for many of the woman, was a milestone. Vivian Nixon, the director of the program, said the program was also a transformation.
“It’s an identity shift,” said Nixon, who was also an alumna of the program.
“Women really embrace these roles as a college graduate and all of those negative labels disappear.”
That was also the message pushed by the program’s valedictorian and the keynote speaker Melissa Harris-Perry, who is the Editor-in-Large for ELLE.com and former host of her own MSNBC weekend show.
“Getting here has been a very long journey for me,” said Valedictorian Amy Stone, who received a bachelor’s in social work from Lehman College.
“I’ve learned that no matter how many times life knocks you down, it’s never too late to stand up and brush yourself off and move forward.”
Harris-Perry’s message to the women was about defying failure.
“I want you to know that not everyone is going to see you as a success,” she said.
"But what you have done is beat a system whose goal was to eat you alive. What you have done was to give light in a place where death was.”