Being new on campus can be hard for any college or university student.
Imagine also being newly released from prison, unsure of your place at school or even in society, while trying to navigate class schedules, student benefits and graduation requirements.
“The first month of college, I wanted to quit,” said San Diego City College student Ryan Flaco Rising. “I’m super tatted up. I’ve got tattoos all over the place, and I didn’t feel like I belonged there.”
Rising had enrolled at City College in 2016 after eight years in prison and said he stuck it out partly because of encouragement from an acquaintance at the UC Berkeley-based Underground Scholars Initiative, a support group for formerly incarcerated students.
He soon discovered the very thing that made him uncomfortable on campus also helped him connect with other students.
“I stand out because I have all these tattoos,” he said. “People were coming up to me and saying, ‘Oh, you just got out? I just got out a few months ago, too.’ I started to recognize there was a lot of formerly incarcerated at the school.”
Realizing there was strength in numbers, Rising and fellow student Maria Morales in 2016 founded the Urban Scholars Union, a City College support group for students who had been in prison. Since then, an Urban Scholars Union has opened at Southwestern College and a new one began holding meetings this semester at Miramar College.
“It’s exciting that schools are responding to this need and recognizing that this is an issue,” said Miramar sociology professor Laura Pecenco, who has run the art program Project Paint for inmates at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa for five years.
“It has been a shifting tide,” said Pecenco, adding that the issue was discussed two years ago at the Senate of California Community Colleges. “People are recognizing that we have to take a look at our criminal justice system and do something.”
In a similar effort, the local nonprofit Inspired Innovation was launched last year by City College student Cierra Robinson. The off-campus nonprofit helps formerly incarcerated people interested in higher education navigate the college system and runs support groups for students already enrolled.
Besides the community college groups, the similar Project Rebound program is on its third year at San Diego State University under public affairs and criminal justice professor Alan Mobley.
“There’s tremendous stigma with having a criminal record,” said Mobley, who once was incarcerated.
Besides that stigma, formerly incarcerated students often are the first in their family to attend college and likely have a distrust of institutions, including school, Mobley said.
“Even when support services are available, they tend to not go out and sign up because of past trauma and past experiences,” he said.
With all those issues combined, formerly incarcerated students have a high risk of failing to complete their graduation requirements within a targeted time of four to six years, making the need for a support group even more pressing, Mobley said.
The university and community college groups have different roots and serve different populations, but share a similar mission. Both have weekly meetings where students offer one another practical and emotional support, and the groups recently got together for a screening of “Life After Life,” a documentary about men recently released from prison.
While the local groups are relatively new, the original Project Rebound was launched at San Francisco State University in 1967 by sociology and criminology professor John Irwin, who had earned college credits through a university extension program while serving five years in state prison in Soledad, Calif. in the 1950s.
The program has been credited with helping hundreds of formerly incarcerated students earn four-year degrees, and in 2016 Project Rebound expanded beyond San Francisco State University to San Diego State University, Fresno State University, Sacramento State University, Cal Poly Pomona and CSU Bakersfield, Fullerton and San Bernardino.
Mobley learned about Project Rebound in the 1990s when he met Irwin, who died in 2010.
“The ‘90s were much different from today,” Mobley said. “A time where it was a tough law-and-order sentiment in society, where prisons were being built and were overcrowded.”
That sentiment began to change with the realization that a high percentage of people coming into prisons were there for parole violations rather than new criminal offenses, Mobley said. Gradually, more focus was given to helping former inmates stay out of prison.
Symbolically, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger changed the name of the Department of Corrections to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in 2005.
Mobley, who had worked on substance-abuse treatment programs inside prisons, came to San Diego State in 2006 and soon began thinking of bringing Project Rebound to the school.
Ten years later, the program was launched at the university with two students, including one undergraduate who wore an electronic monitor on her ankle. Mobley said they told him they heard he was offering support to formerly incarcerated students, and they wanted to help.
From his experience working with prisoners, Mobley wasn’t surprised by the offer.
“It’s very common among inmates that they want to give back to the community while they’re inside and when they get out,” he said. “Many prisoners want to mentor young people so youth can avoid the same type of mistakes they made in their lives.”
Besides working with students on campus, Mobley also does outreach to jails and prisons in the SDSU service area to let prisoners know there is a program that could help shepherd them into higher education.
The outreach helps prisoners pick the right school, understand requirements needed to be accepted and fill out enrollment applications, he said.
At City College, students at a recent weekly Urban Scholars Union meeting discussed plans for an upcoming dinner and other events, while Rising told members of his plan to create a book with tips for future formerly incarcerated students at the school.
Student Amber Miller told other members what the group has meant to her during the meeting.
“USU has held my hand when I didn’t know what avenues to take,” she said. “When I first stepped on campus, I was in foreign territory.”
Miller said Morales, Rising and other students were there to help her find resources. That help lead the once formerly homeless single mother to $10,000 in scholarships, which allowed her to move out of a shelter and into a home.
“It seemed each member had some kind of resource and solution for each problem I was facing,” said Miller, who will begin an internship as a substance-abuse counselor in January.
Barbara Lasure, vice president of Urban Scholars Union, refers to the organization as a family rather than a student club.
“When I came here, I didn’t have a voice,” said Lasure. “I’d lost my family, every possession I owned, and basically I had been beaten down by society. But I refused to accept that anymore.”
Returning to school in her 50s, Lasure said she began to wonder what she had gotten herself into when she first stepped on campus and saw so many young faces. She began to feel comfortable after joining the Urban Scholars Union.
“I would have dropped out of school and just given up on even life if it hadn’t been for this group,” she said. “They’re constantly checking on me.”
Lasure, who is planning to become a substance-abuse counselor, said the group has opened many doors for her and helped her in her personal and academic life.
“First of all, I got my voice back,” she said.