“When I first came here I was afraid,” said Josephine Cochrane, a student at the Graduate School of Social Service (GSS) who is working towards a master’s degree in nonprofit  leadership.

It’s a surprising statement to make about college, coming from someone who has been through frightening experiences before—namely addiction and incarceration.

Cochrane said that when she went to college in the 1970s, she experienced prejudice as an African-American woman. But on settling in at GSS, one of Fordham’s most diverse schools, she said she found a supportive community.

“We get a lot of different perspectives, from Asia to Africa. There’s so much information within a classroom because of the diversity,” she said.

Cochrane’s ultimate goal is to start a nonprofit that will help formerly incarcerated women like herself. She said that as a full-time social worker, she’s already benefited from her education by learning to open herself up to different cultures and ethnicities.

“It’s a wonderful feeling to learn to understand someone’s culture, and work with them regardless of race.”

For her part, Cochrane said that by simply showing up to class, she feels she’s helped change a lot of her fellow students’ perceptions about incarcerated women.

“My classmates never thought that a woman who was in prison would be in [graduate]school,” she said.

Many of the women she met in prison hadn’t finished high school, said Cochrane. She and some others had college degrees—there were even a few women with doctorates.

“I believe that everything happens for a reason, and the reason I, as an educated woman, went to prison was to get to know former offenders and their paths,” she said. “So many of them have talents, like writing poetry, sewing, and cosmetology. But someone has to bring it out of them. Who can do it better than a peer?”

“I’ll always be their peer,” she said.

She said she’s grateful that TV shows, like Orange is the New Black, have brought attention to the ever increasing numbers of women in prison.

“The show helps people know that women in prison are being abused, separated from their loved ones—especially their children, and [that we]live in a judicial system that isn’t fair,” she said.

She said that Fordham has prepared her to help the diverse population of women getting out of prison. She credits her classmates with opening her eyes.

“I draw my inspiration, my aspiration, and purpose from them,” she said. “You have to care for all human life to be in this profession.”


Tom Stoelker is senior staff writer and visual media coordinator for Fordham News. After fifteen years as a freelance designer, Tom shifted his focus to writing and photography. He graduated from Lehman College, CUNY where he majored in English literature and photography and he received his master's in journalism from Columbia University. His work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, and The Architect's Newspaper, where he was associate editor.