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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Smith chapter.

Last week, we welcomed back to campus noted prison activist, author, and Smith College alumna Piper Kerman for a talk about her past experiences and her current advocacy work. For those of you who do not possess a Netflix account, Piper’s memoir, Orange is the New Black is also the basis for the popular Netflix show of the same name, whose fan-base extends to well, just about everyone you probably know

Orange is the New Black is an account of Piper’s experiences while serving time in a federal prison. Shortly after graduating from Smith, Piper carried a bag containing drug money for her girlfriend on a flight back to Chicago from Europe. Five years later, she was arrested and subsequently imprisoned for the incident. Her experiences while in prison furnished the material for her memoir, the publication of which, as well as the TV show, have resulted in considerable fame and, perhaps even more importantly, a place amongst Smith’s notable alums on the Wikipedia page.

How do we evaluate Piper’s place among the ranks of women such as Gloria Steinem, Tammy Baldwin, and Sylvia Plath, to name but a few? Piper’s fame and notoriety arise from having committed a federal offense after all. Life seems to always be a question of what if…? And Piper’s story is certainly no different. At what point do we decide that “the past is the past,” and how does someone like Piper ever separate herself from that past? But maybe it is better to ask whether a mistake that has generated so much positivity should really be considered a mistake.

In the days leading up to the event, the excitement over Piper’s imminent arrival was palpable. While I would like to give my fellow students the benefit of the doubt and assume that their excitement was due to the fact that an activist—who had turned a bad situation into her life’s work—was coming to campus I suspect it was due more to the fact that we would shortly be seeing a quasi-celebrity. I was less ready to be impressed. With so many strong role models among the Smith alums, I was wary of what I perceived as an attempt to glamorize Piper’s experiences in the prison system. After all, as Piper herself alluded, the effects of her mistake so many years ago went far beyond her prison sentence. I was impressed, however, by the passion with which she spoke of her advocacy work post-prison, although I was still more reserved than many around me in my enthusiasm over her interview.

I still think that Piper represents a difficult conundrum. On one hand her mistake led her to a position of positive influence; on the other, her one-time participation in an activity that leads many into the very system she now fights, also surely had negative and far-reaching consequences. How then do we evaluate her celebrity? In the end, I think we can ask ourselves what if? until we go blue in the face.  But the past is past and we can only go forward. We are all shaped by our past experiences, and Piper is no exception. Instead Piper is a lesson to all of us in shaping our mistakes into something positive—a lesson that many of us, myself included, could use.