Marek Fuchs and Natasha Rodriguez ’16

Investigating Stories to Reveal Complex Truths

From Natasha Rodriguez’s first assignment in Marek Fuchs’ First-Year Studies course, Marek was struck by the depth and drive of her curiosity, and he set out to help her find ways to fuel it.

Over several semesters of collaboration in different writing classes, Marek challenged Natasha (class of 2016) with increasingly difficult long-form journalism assignments, including uncovering the details of a financial scandal in Yonkers and investigating suicide rates among NYPD officers—a surprisingly taboo topic. But it was in their final conference project together in her senior year that Natasha tackled her most controversial issue yet: sexual relationships in a maximum-security women’s prison.

Taking Risks

For Marek’s class, Natasha was allowed access three times a week to the prison, where she interviewed inmates. “I didn’t go into it trying to find an answer,” Natasha says. “Instead, I wanted to get a better understanding of the complexities of sex in prison from female inmates directly—to get their own perspectives on it.”

Natasha’s investigations led her to the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003, which categorized any sort of sex in prison—even consensual sex between inmates—as rape. “In men’s prisons, rape is used as a form of violence or dominance,” Natasha explains. She suspected the situation would be different in women’s prisons. “The inmates I spoke with were pretty mad they weren’t given the right to consent. Inmates aren’t permitted to have sex with other inmates.” Natasha also learned that severe repercussions, including time in solitary confinement for victims, discourage women inmates from reporting rape.

Reflecting on what she learned while investigating this story, Natasha says, “In the end, the perspectives were wide-ranging, and it’s clear there are issues that need to be addressed. I wanted a better understanding of what these women faced.”

“This story presented the ultimate in difficult reporting,” Marek explains. “Because you’re talking about incredibly sensitive material.”

Marek was confident Natasha would get to the heart of the issue: “The hurdles were as high as possible, and she found a way to do it. Some journalists foam at the mouth with aggression, but Natasha has this easy way about her that belies her relentlessness.”

Moving Past Comfort

“When it comes to long-form journalism,” Marek says, “you just have to be out doing it, and you need to be working closely with somebody. The conference system allows you to do just that. It’s so valuable to face a challenge that’s specifically tailored to your interests, your strengths, and the weaknesses you want to overcome. What you learn from all these challenging projects is how to be comfortable being uncomfortable, how to figure things out as you go along.”

Natasha agrees. “That’s why I chose Sarah Lawrence. Faculty members here push you to move out of your comfort zone.”