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Like many first-year students, Alberto Cruz didn't come to Adelphi with a career planned out. He was from nearby Hicksville, New York, and wanted to stay local. He also knew he wanted to help people. “Coming out of high school, I wanted either to be a nurse or a social worker," he said, adding that Adelphi offered him a scholarship and had strong programs in both fields.

Ironically, it was a history professor who helped him choose a major. As part of the first-year seminar Mindfulness and the Study of History—conducted in partnership with Adelphi’s Innovation Center—Cristina Zaccarini, PhD, associate professor of history, has students interview formerly incarcerated people and write short testimonial biographies that can help them reenter the job market, obtain housing and meet other challenges. The bios are posted online, serving as testimonials to be used in applications for housing and jobs. Some of those interviews can be heard in Dr. Zaccarini’s podcast series.

The interviews are facilitated by Network Support Services (NSS), a Bronx-based nonprofit organization that provides rehabilitation and reentry programs for incarcerated people and parolees in New York state. A new documentary about the Adelphi-Network Support Services (NSS) collaboration, made by award-winning filmmaker Art Jones of Great Jones Productions, spotlights the unique partnership.

Mindfulness—a practice of quiet meditation and deliberation—is the common denominator for the meetings. Dr. Zaccarini is a certified Koru mindfulness instructor and teaches the practice to her students. Likewise, NSS clients are trained in their own system of mindfulness while in prison and carry this training outside of prison.

NahShon Jackson, as outreach coordinator, gathered the names of men who participated in the mindfulness and rehabilitation program of Network Support Services. Dr. Zaccarini prepared students to interview the men through her weekly reflections on mindfulness principles such as empathy, observing versus judging, and compassion for self and others, as well as historical works centering on social equity and criminal justice.

“While students may have found the prospect of interviewing individuals recently released from prison daunting, by the time the interviews came, they were prepared to meet the challenge,” Dr. Zaccarini said. “The foundation of the course is mindfulness. The course brings together mindfulness and history, rather than seeing mindfulness as something that is added.”

“He gave us a great point of view,” Cruz said. “He was like a whole other teacher. He would talk about how his experiences have been impacted by mindfulness and how mindfulness is more than just closing your eyes and breathing.”

The Innovation Center partners with outside companies and organizations, which bring projects to the table. The students, with faculty guidance, create innovative proposals, developing professional skills, including problem-solving skills, and applying design-thinking methodology to recommend solutions, being mindful of client needs. Companies and organizations get innovative proposals designed by students with faculty guidance, while students develop professional skills, including project planning and business correspondence.

Learning History and Empathy

“Students gain knowledge of history, of course, but also raise their levels of empathy and learn to care more about individuals that they likely had previously judged by the worst thing that the person did,” Dr. Zaccarini said. “The course began and continues as 50 percent a history course, so the students learn about historical figures—Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Angela Davis—and they learn about the history of the prison-industrial complex.”

As far as mindfulness in his own life, Cruz said, “It’s something that I practice in my own fashion now. Sometimes I sit and try to relax and think about what I’m doing and appreciate that I’m able to be here.”

Cruz settled on a social work major after his experiences with NSS. Now, when he meditates about the future, he said, “I see a job that’s very rewarding. Just being able to help others gives a very nice feeling. I’d like to pursue that and help people on another level.”

Mindfulness and the Study of History will be offered again in the Fall 2021 semester.

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