A pathway to a better future: MBA alum Jennifer Greenberg on teaching business at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility

Coffee Creek Correctional Facility students

Portland MBA alum Jennifer Greenberg is, among many other things, a teacher. In her most recent class, she has faced significant challenges. The students have a widely disparate range of educational experience. None of them have Internet access. In fact, since the class started meeting during COVID-19 in September 2020, she hasn’t met the students. “It is wild to be doing this during COVID,” says Greenberg. “It is class via carrier pigeon.” 

Greenberg is teaching with Portland State’s Higher Education in Prison program at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (CCCF). CCCF is the only prison for women, non-binary and trans people in Oregon. The program is in its second year, and to date six classes have been offered with plans for more. Program director and PSU professor Deb Arthur’s goal is to create a pathway to a full liberal arts undergraduate degree. 

Each week, Arthur exchanges printed learning materials, graded and ungraded assignments and written student questions with a Coffee Creek administrator in the parking lot. Then, she drives to a grocery store parking lot to give Greenberg the papers for her class. Despite the complex logistics and timing, Greenberg describes the students as “some of the hungriest and most enthusiastic I have ever worked with.”

“We are building the plane while we’re flying in it”

Research studies have shown that when people in custody have access to education, it correlates with a decrease in recidivism. Men in Oregon’s prisons have had access to higher education for years, but PSU’s Higher Education in Prison program is the first credit-bearing college program for women in the state. Ensuring that incarcerated women have equal access to higher education fits in with PSU’s mission of equity. 

The Coffee Creek program is in its nascent days, says Greenberg. Against the backdrop of COVID-19, “it feels like we are building the plane while we’re flying in it.” Curriculum development was labor intensive. Greenberg co-teaches Business 101 and Business Communications with her friend and fellow Portland MBA ‘19 alum, Christine Dixon, who is currently in her home country of Australia. Together, they rewrote every chapter of their Business 101 textbook into read-and-response packets to help students engage with the materials in a meaningful way. The co-teachers meet weekly but communicate almost daily across the vast time difference. Both Greenberg and Dixon described the critical technological problem-solving that went into sharing learning materials and grading feedback with each other. 

There are ten students, some of whom are very comfortable in an academic setting and others who have not had the same access to education in the past. Greenberg must work hard to empower the students and ensure they have the resources to develop confidence and comfort with the flow of undergraduate education. “I am teaching from the book ‘Crucial Conversations’ right now,” Greenberg says. “Crucial conversations rely on us feeling safe, and in student reflections, I am seeing a lot of non-safe feelings. So we are taking it very slow. My goal for them is to gain these skills slowly and incrementally in a way that doesn’t put them in a position to have any feeling of risk.”

Creating a new cohort of business students

Greenberg, who earned her MBA in 2019, is an unusually good candidate to teach in this program. Before pursuing her business degree, she studied secondary education, specializing in at-risk youth and experiential education. Even though her career transitioned away from the classroom, Greenberg has retained a strong passion for teaching, and her experiences have given her strategies for supporting struggling students. “After getting my MBA, the idea of working with students who had a different set of needs and who were really trying to reorient their life appealed to me very strongly. It is very purpose-driven work,” says Greenberg.

Her MBA has especially helped Greenberg navigate program development. “There has been a certain amount of building something, seeing how it goes, pivoting, and going with the flow in this uncertain circumstance that has led to a better product in the same way that innovation does,” she says. “The pace of information flow, the kind of information flow. We are always rolling with it.” 

In the face of these challenges, Greenberg reiterates her admiration for the students, who are receiving a college education because they formed a committee to advocate for their right to it. “They want this so badly. They are so passionate about receiving an education.” 

Despite their ambition, Greenberg sees how some students continue to struggle to feel confident in themselves and their work. Greenberg believes that a business education can help these students understand that they have strengths and skills that are essential to helping organizations function and succeed. To her, this is the crux of the program. 

“It is all about these students seeing themselves within a greater picture as a contributor,” says Greenberg “In Business 101, I have the opportunity to help people see where they sit and how their actions are important. If you can’t see your purpose, then your discretionary actions are not going to be to the benefit of your company, are not going to benefit yourself.” 

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