A morning that began with setting up some chairs ended with a presidential encounter.
A simple request to webcast an event led to shedding light on the community and humanity in prisons.
A young woman nervously left her family at an airport 2,400 miles away, only to find another family waiting at the end of her journey.
Three members of the Class of 2014, all scholarship recipients, shared their “Buckeye moment” in the weeks leading up to Commencement Day. Their stories follow.
Arielle Cowie's story
It had never been a question in Arielle Cowie’s mind. She had wanted to leave her home country of Trinidad and Tobago to study at a U.S. university, and she knew competitive field hockey play would be her entrée.
Although she considered universities in New York and California, two players from her local hockey club in Port of Spain told her she should consider their alma mater. Following their recommendation and a meeting with an Ohio State coach at a tournament in Virginia, Cowie decided to become a Buckeye, despite never stepping foot in Ohio.
“I was excited,” she says, “and then as I got closer to leaving, my friends back home started saying, ‘You’re going to the middle of nowhere. You’re not going to have any fun.’ I was a little nervous I was going to hate it.”
Her apprehension grew in the days before she would leave her father, sisters, brothers and the field hockey club where her late mother once served as president. Would the Midwest culture clash with the laid-back approach she acquired in the Caribbean? Would people find her accent odd? Would her teammates snub her?
Exhausted from the daylong trip to Port Columbus International Airport, Cowie was greeted by her coach. As they drove toward campus, Cowie’s stomach churned. The car swung around the driveway at the base of Lincoln Tower, and Cowie saw a beautiful sight.
“The entire team was waiting for me. They were all there and smiling,” she says. “I’ll never forget that. I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be OK.’”
The American players were excited to meet Cowie, the first of their international teammates to arrive. During hours of practice in the hot sun that summer, weeks of play that fall and many early mornings of grueling strength training that winter, the teammates became more than Cowie could have imagined. “I adore those girls,” she says. “They are my sisters.”
“I could never imagine life without Arie,” says former teammate and roommate Christina Shea, a senior studying sociology. “We played together; we lived together. We sometimes fight like sister and sister, but at the end of the day we look out for each other.”
Cowie found familial relationships elsewhere, too. Many of her teammates’ parents cheered her dynamic play at midfield and celebrated when she was named Second Team All-Big Ten and recognized for her academic prowess as a student-athlete. They welcomed her to their table for family gatherings and more. “It was like having second parents – my foreign parents. It was absolutely amazing.”
Her American family and biological family had the opportunity to embrace each other last fall, when seniors were honored at the final home game of the season. Cowie’s older sisters and one of her two brothers – a player on the national field hockey team back home and her personal “hockey hero” – surprised her with a visit. “It was a real sob fest,” she recalls, laughing.
Her families will come together again in May, when Cowie graduates with a degree in business. She hopes to combine her education with her passion for music and begin her career in the entertainment industry.
“The biggest adjustment was completely uprooting myself from home and living here,” she says, “but coming to Ohio State worked out so much better than I could have fathomed.”
Jordan Edelheit's story
For the last two years, Jordan Edelheit has started most Monday mornings the same way.
She drives an hour north on U.S. 23 to Marion Correctional Institution, where she passes through a metal detector with little more than her car keys and a photo ID. She walks through one locked gate after another and past the crowded visitation room, where fathers try to spend quality time with their children under the watchful gaze of guards and Shrek murals.
As Edelheit makes her way through a maze of halls and deeper into the bowels of the prison, inmates in faded blue uniforms call out to her by name. “Good morning!” she replies cheerfully, giving a relaxed wave.
Finally, she reaches the small meeting space on the second floor where 10 men are gathered. They are felons; most are serving time for violent crimes, including murder. But as she takes her seat, all Edelheit sees are writers.
The Ohio State student began volunteering at the prison two years ago, soon after hosting the first TEDx Ohio State University. Another volunteer at the prison reached out to Edelheit to see if the event in Columbus could be streamed live to the prison, where inmates had been devouring TED talks posted online. Edelheit came to Marion for the first time a couple of days after her first TEDx event on campus to discuss a novel idea.
“I did not think of bringing TEDx into Marion’s prison; they did. I just played a supporting role,” Edelheit says. “We were a very dynamic team – a 19-year-old, a 70-something retired Spanish teacher and two inmates.”
That team hosted the first TEDx in a prison, where inmates shared the stage as presenters with Ohio Director of Rehabilitation and Correction Gary Mohr and others. The event brought together 300 people from within and outside the institution’s barbed-wire fences. It’s a model that is being used as a basis for hosting events at other correctional institutions, from San Quentin to Rikers Island and even Spain.
“It was wonderful to see so many people challenge their comfort zones and to have real dialogue about social change and eradicating violence.”
"Prison is an unlikely place to shed light on humanity, but I feel like the people who were there left with a greater sense of feeling connected to one another," Edelheit says, “Part of my life’s mission, right now, is to build community wherever I go." (Next stop: Ecuador)
Edelheit, a student at the John Glenn School of Public Affairs, continued to visit the prison regularly and is working on a writing project with a group of inmates. She offers weekly prompts that conjure up reflections on their lives – the lives they led before they were locked away in a prison and the ones they forge now behind its walls. Edelheit hopes to take their written word and share it with a wider audience one day.
In one of their last meetings before Edelheit’s graduation, the men talk about what the time with her has meant. There aren’t many college students who come and collaborate with them on a regular basis, and they use the words “genuine” and “brave” when talking about her.
“I have a daughter younger than you, Jordan,” one man says, “and I see you like a rose growing up out of the concrete here. People on the outside look at us as disposable, and you treat us like renewable goods. Like we have purpose and possibility.”
Edelheit shows discomfort for possibly the first time in her many hours spent in prison.
“I’m the one who is thankful,” she says.
Wynton Jordan's story
When Wynton Jordan reflects on the last four years at Ohio State, some of his most important moments happened in one spot.
“I remember the first time I saw it,” he says. “I was here for my campus tour, and we walk up to this big, green space. It was sunny, and there were students everywhere. I’m sure they said something important, but I wasn’t paying attention. All I could think was, ‘This is college.'"
Falling in love with Ohio State on the Oval to the soundtrack of Orton Hall’s chimes is an experience generations of Buckeyes share.
Early one Sunday morning a few months later, Jordan was back on the Oval. The freshman and his friends were there as volunteers, helping set up for a presidential visit to campus. He was working on the area where national media would later stake out a spot for coverage of the event.
“It was a pretty hectic day, and at the end the lady who asked us to help told us that our reward for volunteering would be a seat on the stage with President Obama,” he says.
“I couldn’t believe it. All I did was answer an email asking for volunteers.”
There were an estimated 35,000 people on the Oval that evening, and Jordan was 15 feet from the president. “I don’t know if you have ever seen the Oval completely filled, but it blew my mind,” he says. “There’s so much going on at Ohio State that you never know what can happen next.”
The Oval also served as a classroom for Jordan in 2012. An operations management major at the Fisher College of Business and member of the Ohio Union Activities Board, he was part of the team that hosted the O.A.R. concert on the Oval that served as the launch of the But for Ohio State Campaign.
“It was a great introduction to business contracting and event management,” he says. “There are not many places in the country where you can work with such a talented group of students.”
Not far from the Oval is where Jordan found community at Ohio State. In addition to the leadership groups and opportunities he enjoyed as a student, Jordan made friends and connected with mentors through the Bell National Resource Center. The center serves African-American male students and supports scholarship that informs policymakers beyond campus.
“Coming from Atlanta, I wanted to know if there would be people like me here. Would I see them on a regular basis?”
The center was a springboard for Jordan from the beginning, and he found a group of friends who challenge him intellectually one moment and with whom he can have fun the next.
“Ohio State was the best choice for me,” Jordan says. “To this day, I have not regretted it once. I’m sad my time here is coming to an end, but I know that I’ve made lifelong friendships here. I’ll carry Ohio State with me.”