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Making Change, One Poster at a Time

BMCC students and (center) John Jay College President Jeremy Travis and BMCC Criminal Justice Professor Yolanda Martin
BMCC students and (center) John Jay College President Jeremy Travis and BMCC Criminal Justice Professor Yolanda Martin
December 11, 2014

For the first time in its 7-year history, the First Year Student Showcase at John Jay College featured research posters by community college students.

“I want to offer a special welcome to our friends from BMCC,” said John Jay College President Jeremy Travis in his opening remarks.

A few yards away from the dais, Professor Yolanda Martin, Coordinator of the BMCC Criminal Justice program stood with her students June Adams-Pallais, Estephania Espinal, Crystal Ortiz, Vanessa Tessier, Bernadette Schaffer, Cristian Manuel and Michael McConnell.

Their posters highlighted research into the sexual assault of female inmates, the link between child abuse and gender violence, and New York City residents’ perceptions of overall neighborhood safety.

The students, who had braved a torrential rainstorm to take part in the event, detailed their findings during conversations with professors, guests and fellow students who filled a large dining hall in John Jay College’s new building on West 59th Street in Manhattan.

“We care a lot about undergraduate research,” President Travis told the packed audience.

“We engage our students from the first day you arrive, connecting you with faculty and learning communities. We want you to develop your own critical abilities … and become a citizen of the world.”

Speaking out for women inmates

Visitors to the BMCC student posters included John Jay President Jeremy Travis, Provost Jane Bowers, and many other administrators and faculty.

Soon-to-graduate criminal justice major June Adams-Pallais—who was just accepted into Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts—talked about her research project, “Sexual Assault of Female Inmates.”

“We don’t see women prisoners as people with full rights,” she said. “We don’t see them as people who have made mistakes, most of which were non-violent.”

Of the over 200,000 women behind bars, 30,000 have reported a sexual assault, said Adams-Pallais. Her research led her to conclude that “placing men in a position of total authority over an all-female population poses a threat to their bodily safety,” and “strict guidelines” should be put in place to counter the problem.

Addressing gender violence

Estephania Espinal plans to major in criminal justice at John Jay College and someday work for the FBI. Her research partner Crystal Ortiz is considering a next step majoring in sociology at John Jay, and their project explored the link between child abuse and gender-based violence.

Espinal explained that a child’s repeated exposure to violence can impact the physiology of his or her brain.

“Child abuse can be emotional as well as physical,” said Ortiz. “Over 78,000 children are sexually abused, every year. That number was shocking to me.”

As they looked into the roots of domestic violence, they also examined the importance of a criminal justice system that is more reflective of women’s contributions to the field.

“I think a lot of women feel discouraged to work in the system because the men’s view is that women should do something more safe. We need to show younger girls and women that they can do anything a man can do.”

Examining neighborhood safety

For the research project “Perceptions of Drugs, Crime and Race in my Neighborhood,” BMCC’s criminal justice students interviewed people in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; Maspeth, Queens; the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and Morningside Heights, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Perceptions of crime do not always correspond with what the data reports, according to their findings. How this relates to a neighborhood’s demographics is another issue they explored.

Researching neighborhood perceptions of public safety also broadened their perspective on the current national attention on police use of lethal force, and subsequent public protests in New York and around the world.

Michael McConnell, who is planning a career as a police officer and detective, advocates for increasing the number of police officers in New York.

“It’s a big city,” he says. “There’s a lot of territory to cover. Police presence deters crime.”

Classmate Bernadette Schaffer has an opposing view. “I think we need fewer police officers in New York,” she says. “The higher the number of police officers, the more people there are looking to make arrests for the sake of their jobs and quotas.”

They both agree with one point McConnell makes: “I think things need to change, and we can be part of the change.”

Vanessa Tessier reiterates that point: “I’d like to change people’s views. We all have to live here,” and June Adams-Pallais puts it like this: “I think it’s a very ripe time for change. A good time. As more awareness happens, it snowballs.”

Setting the stage for next year

“We all left John Jay today really satisfied,” said Professor Martin, the day after the event.

“For the students it was a unique experience, validating their academic work and demystifying the conference presentation process along the way. On my part, I got to see them grow more and more confident as they explained their posters a few times. It was very rewarding to me as an educator, plunging into this without knowing how it would turn out and then leaving so eager to do it again next year.”

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  • BMCC criminal justice students present posters in the First Year Student Showcase at John Jay College
  • They are the first community college students to participate in the showcase

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