A woman who was convicted of armed robbery five years ago and is now pursuing a graduate degree at Columbia's School of Social Work is spearheading a campaign to remove the criminal-background question—commonly known as "the box"—from applications to the university.
"A felony conviction is a life sentence," Sarah Zarba told the Post. "It follows you wherever you go, even though it's not relevant to who you really are."
Zarba was arrested in 2010 for robbing a Blockbuster store with her then-boyfriend. She was charged with 11 counts of robbery and convicted on one count after taking a plea deal. She spent a year in jail, 18 months in rehab for a heroin addiction, and has been branded a felon for the rest of her life.
"That person was a part of myself that I don't even know anymore," Zarba said.
In 2012, she was released from jail and enrolled at John Jay College of Criminal Justice because she wanted to help others with criminal histories. This fall, she started working towards a Master's in social work at Columbia, where she is doing a leadership fellowship on issues surrounding incarceration.
Zarba and fellow student Leyla Martinez, who was previously incarcerated for fraud and is currently a junior at the Columbia School of General Studies, started the "Beyond the Box" initiative to get the school to remove the criminal background check question from its application. They are also working to ban words like "felon" and "ex-convict."
Columbia isn't the only school fighting a battle against the box. In April, NYU students, led by the university's Incarceration to Education Coalition, occupied the steps of the school's Kimmel Center for University Life to demand that the school stop making applicants disclose whether they've been convicted of a crime.
Both NYU and Columbia use the Common Application, which requires applicants to disclose if they've been found guilty or convicted of a crime by checking a box. In August, the university began asking prospective students to simply disclose whether they had been "convicted or disciplined for violent incidents" including violence, physical force, possession of a weapon, and any sexual offense. Although the IEC supports NYU's latest step, they are still fighting for the university to "ban the box" altogether.
Earlier this week, Martinez wrote an op-ed for student publication The Tab about how the box deters people from applying to elite universities.
"The box was there on the application, so I never expected to be accepted," she wrote.
"For some crazy reason when I saw that box I thought, 'What the hell? Why do you need to know this about me?' That should not be the reason why you deny me this opportunity.... I wasn't sentenced for life. But they're making it impossible for me to make anything of myself."