Dr. Sarah Stanwick’s heart raced as she approached the Staton Correctional Institute in rural Elmore County, Alabama, in early January 2019. The Auburn School of Accountancy associate professor committed to spend four months teaching Principles of Financial Accounting to 17 male convicts. She would be the first Harbert College of Business faculty member to participate in the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project (APAEP), and on that first day, she questioned this pioneering career move.
The realization of her commitment sank in as she neared the facility. She would be alone in a classroom with the prisoners. No cell phone. No internet access.
“I couldn’t catch my breath,” she said. “I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ My daughter called me while I was en route, and I told her I thought I was having a heart attack, I was so anxious.” Now, Dr. Stanwick says she can’t wait to go back.
Each Tuesday afternoon of the spring semester, Stanwick shared her knowledge of business and accounting through the APAEP. Founded in 2002 by Auburn faculty member & current Director Kyes Stevens, APAEP has offered thousands of people incarcerated in state prisons the chance to take noncredit courses in a variety of disciplines. Now students are even eligible to earn a Bachelor of Science degree by combining business with human development and family studies coursework. Courses taught within the degree program are identical to those taught on campus.
“When they get out of prison, they will have a very useful degree in-hand,” Stanwick said. “These people have a second chance.”
Dr. Stanwick’s trepidation gave way to a surprising realization on that first day. “I was greeted by a student who shook my hand and thanked me,” she explained. “All of the anxiety, concerns, fears, were gone. I realized they appreciated that I came in to help them. I became so excited to go every week and continually pondered my lesson plans and how to engage my students.”
Aside from traditional PowerPoint slides, Stanwick reinforced lecture topics for Staton inmates with plenty of relatable examples, like the game of Monopoly. That’s right … the real estate board game.
Jail puns aside, Stanwick’s students used the game to broker real estate transactions, donate portions of the sales and investments to Habitat for Humanity, record donations on a ledger, and determine tax credits. This version of Monopoly was not merely a game where they pass “Go” or collect $200; it was an education.
My participation in the APAEP is a way that I can do things for others, but is also related to our mission here at Auburn."
The class not only heard lectures about the McDonald’s Corporation’s business operations, but they read the fast food tycoon Ray Kroc’s autobiography and viewed the related movie “The Founder,” with discussions along the way. Students learned business and accounting concepts from Stanwick, but she also learned from her students.
“I was challenged by their questions,” she said. “The students thought beyond recording transactions and preparing financial statements. They made me think about how to make the class beneficial to their lives.”
Stanwick also showed students a film on white-collar crime convict Bernie Madoff and the business choices that landed him behind bars. That is when she fully realized she was not in a room with imprisoned criminals. She was in a room with students who were in prison.
“I turned my chair around so I could watch the movie right along with them,” she explained. “Halfway through, I realized that my back was to 17 men I did not know. That was a point where they knew there was mutual trust. And I continued to watch the movie with them.”
Stanwick, whose other major outreach project is the Tiger$ense financial literacy fair for middle schoolers, is developing a financial literacy class she’ll teach to incarcerated students. She looks forward to equipping them with skills that will allow them to better face financial challenges when they are released.
“My mother instilled in me the quality of doing things for others. My participation in the APAEP is a way that I can do things for others, but it is also related to our mission here at Auburn. I can be in a classroom and teach, but being able to encourage others and show what the Auburn Family really means is important to me,” Stanwick said.