Ithaca, N.Y. — Four years ago, mired in the depths of a drug addiction, Cornell senior Keri Blakinger was arrested with $50,000 of heroin and sentenced to 2.5 years in prison.
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The 21st Century Library Campaign
Tompkins County Public Library
Blakinger served a total of 21 months and was released. Cornell gave her permission to complete her remaining two classes. Then, with over a dozen letters of support from community leaders — including from her editors at The Ithaca Times — she successfully petitioned the university to overturn her lifetime ban from campus.
That victory in hand, Blakinger appeared at Cornell this weekend for her graduation. Once labeled a felon, Blakinger has embarked on a rehabilitation that has included a full-time job in journalism, an in-progress memoir (the “IV League”), and, now, a bachelor’s degree in English from the College of Arts & Sciences.
“It feels like I just finished a race that was supposed to be a 5K and turned into a marathon,” she says in an interview on Monday, two days after she walked, diploma in hand, across the stage at Barton Hall.
Blakinger’s arrest in December 2010 drew mention in The Huffington Post, Gawker and a half-dozen other news outlets. Citing law enforcement, The Ithaca Journal named her the “Queenpin” of heroin dealing in Collegetown. She later admitted to using LSD, DMT and other hard drugs.
Blakinger said in an interview that she hasn’t touched drugs since her arrest. A post-graduation gathering at Banfi’s on Saturday, she said, was thus both a celebration of her graduation and a celebration of four years of sobriety.
“It does feel firmly behind me, but there are some memories that will always be very fresh,” she says. “I think there’s some parts of both an active addiction as well as being in prison and jail that are traumatizing.”
Blakinger gave particular credit to her family and to Glynis Hart, managing editor of the Finger Lakes Community newspapers, for supporting her.
“Keri is one of the most dynamic — if not the most dynamic — reporters I have ever worked with,” says Hart, who has been managing editor for six years, in an interview with The Voice. “She is a go-getter and has just incredible drive.”
Blakinger and Hart met because Hart was working on a story about women who had been boarded out. Hart offered Blakinger the chance to freelance for The Ithaca Times, and Blakinger jumped at the opportunity. (Blakinger was an editor at the Cornell Daily Sun, and — full disclosure — worked there with the author of this piece.) Hart and Blakinger have since started co-teaching a journalism program in the Tompkins County Jail.
Hart laughed as she recalled sending Blakinger — who has piercings and often wears black — to report on Candor and Spencer, “the most conservative places we cover.” Blakinger was quickly loved and appreciated by her sources, Hart said.
“They think she’s the greatest,” Hart said. “She’s been a boon.”
Blakinger said the list of those who have helped her is long. Among those who attended the Banfi’s celebration, she said, was her brother, professors from SUNY and even a family that watched her dog while she was in prison.
Also in attendance was Cornell professor Mary Katzenstein. Katzenstein is well-known for her class “Prisons,” which examines — among other things — the benefits of prison education. It’s the last class Blakinger took, once released, to complete her Cornell degree.
“I got an A,” Blakinger says.