At this time of year, most college students have completed final exams and term papers in anticipation of a nice winter break. As I read the senior capstone paper of one student, I am profoundly impressed by her scholarly work. The paper’s empirical research, theoretical context, and succinct flow – all elements are brilliantly done. I am soon reminded though that the chance to come home from college at the end of a semester or the hope of entering the world of work after obtaining a degree does not belong to her.
I’m reading a paper by Cyntoia Brown – an inmate in the Tennessee State Prison for Women whose case has been the center of attention lately reemerging from a news story and leading to the social media outcry insisting her freedom. She’s serving life in prison after being tried as an adult for killing her 43 year-old abuser at the age of 16.
Amid the demands for sexual predators to be called out and the persistent push for systemic change, Cyntoia’s 2004 case as a teen sentenced to 60 years has reappeared in news feeds and caught the eye of celebs like Rihanna, Lebron James and Kim Kardashian West. With a history of being trafficked into sex slavery, many are questioning why Cyntoia wasn’t seen as the victim in this case.
Despite her circumstances, Cyntoia has dedicated her time in prison to scholarly inquiry and intellectual rigor as a student in the Lipscomb University Initiative for Education (LIFE) program – one of only a handful of programs in the U.S. to offer a college degree to prison inmates. She was selected by the Tennessee Department of Correction to be admitted as a student at Lipscomb University, a private Christian university in Nashville, Tennessee, and took courses from the university curriculum alongside fellow inmates and other traditional students onsite at the prison. A rich, life-changing educational experience, it led her to earn an associate’s degree in 2015.
In May 2019, she will complete her bachelor’s degree.
Cyntoia has been studying literature on domestic minor sex trafficking and researching the correlation between societal perceptions of trafficked and exploited teens, and the effectiveness of eradication efforts. Her research explores the maturity factor of minors having the competence to distinguish consent from sexual abuse. She combats the notion that minors welcome exploitation by voluntarily prostituting themselves and challenges the social phenomena of shunning and shaming exploited teenagers.
In her capstone paper, she proposes a grassroots community based approach that reshapes the cultural norms surrounding the teen sex epidemic. She names it The GLITTER Project (Grassroots, Learning Initiative on Teen Trafficking, Exploitation and Rape) – an online awareness campaign with blogs, narratives, hashtags and photos aimed at fostering dialogue among community members through education and empowerment.
More often than not, young women struggle with histories of substance abuse, rape, violence, childhood trauma, domestic violence, mental illness, and poverty. Often times, these traumas span back generations in families, as they do with Cyntoia. However, she has gained the self-esteem to invest in her own education and the confidence to transcend the systemic ills that have haunted her.
Cyntoia now embodies the qualities of a scholar.
Her intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, communication skills, thought leadership and commitment to community all reveal the academic professionalism of any high-achieving student.
Though Cyntoia will graduate with a bachelor’s degree, she will not enter the real world and the job market like most college students. That’s what many are fighting for – a chance to win clemency from the Tennessee Board of Parole and Governor Bill Haslam granting her a new life.
Cyntoia was sexually exploited and lured into a lifestyle of abuse, and now her education has become an outlet for halting the spiral of shame, low self-esteem, and hopelessness. Not only is she battling her life sentence, she’s fighting the lack of awareness and acceptance around this problem. Through education, she has used her academic experience to highlight the domestic minor sex trafficking that she’s witnessed firsthand and is ready to devote her future life to creating solutions.
Becoming a scholar is a worthy pursuit. Cyntoia can now look beyond prison walls to see what could be and to know that her life is forever transformed. Full of promise, she’s now an agent for change and an influential voice in the fight for exploited teens.
Her story is a testament of proof that making an investment the best minds of our society can create cultural change and set them on the road to redemption.