Rising Scholars program opens new center

By Juan Calvillo

The opening of the Education Justice Rising Scholars program’s new center on Wednesday is the culmination of the hard work done by the program staff and formerly-incarcerated students. The focus is on helping formerly-incarcerated students and families who have been impacted by the justice system. The ribbon cutting for the center, located in East Los Angeles College’s E1 building room 104, is just the start for Elizandro Umana, program coordinator.

“This is just the beginning. I’m excited for what’s to come and keep a look out for us because we’re going to make some moves, make some noise and we’re going to make it happen,” Umana said.

Janice Hahn, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisor for the fourth district, said incarceration causes damage and trauma to both the individual and to the individual’s family. She said the work of helping formerly-incarcerated people return to education is important.  The work the program does to help youths in the county’s probation camps is key to getting them their high school diplomas and the assistance to get into the college environment.

“This brand new center speaks to ELAC’s commitment to these students and this important cause,” Hahn said.

The ceremony was filled with students who are currently in the program. Each of the students had their own reasons for supporting and representing the event. Edward De La Torre said his mindset has changed since leaving prison and joining the Rising Scholars program. 

He said walking out of prison the situation is really focused on fending for a person’s own well being. The program provides the opportunity for formerly-incarcerated people to take the next step in their life. He said the opportunity isn’t a handout and the program is there to help potential students in their decision making process.

“It’s helping us a lot. It’s motivating us and it’s just a beautiful thing all the way around,” De La Torre said.

Leonard Acosta joined the Rising Scholars’ program over the 2022 summer session. He said when he was paroled in 2000 there was nothing for formerly-incarcerated people. Since joining the program, he has been impacted by the assistance provided.

“It makes a big difference. They help us with getting our books [and] tutoring. They help us with a bunch of stuff we need,” Acosta said.

Estefany Mendez is a mother and student in the Rising Scholar program. She was also one of the few people who spoke during the event. She said formerly-incarcerated students as a community are often left behind when it comes to assistance. 

Mendez said her community was not centered on education, instead it was filled with violence and drugs. She said the program not only opens doors to formerly-incarcerated students, it does the same for children of incarcerated people.

“Some of these kids who are walking into these colleges have parents who are incarcerated right now…I just feel like this [the center] is giving us a home where we can actually go into an office and be ourselves,” Mendez said.

The program currently serves 60 students at ELAC and Alberto Roman, ELAC president, said he hopes the program can grow to 200 students. The program is funded by a $516,000 grant for the next three years through the California Community College Chancellor’s Office. Roman said the college was committed to continuing to find ways of supporting the program.

“Further commitment entails providing additional funding as the program expands to meet its goal. We will also be looking to leverage funding through federal, state and local grants that support these types of valuable programs,” Roman said.

Vanessa Ochoa, dean of Student Services, said the work will continue in helping students at ELAC. She said the opening of the new center is exciting, especially seeing the scale of the program’s accomplishments. 

Ochoa said the next step for the program is, “To make sure [the students] have the full support for their comprehensive journey at East Los Angeles College.”

“More importantly to make sure that we, as a program, help them think about their next steps once they see their degrees at East LA College and transfer on to continue in their journey of greatness.”

Umana said he was happy with the turnout for the event, especially that so many of the program’s students showed up for the ribbon cutting. He said it was a long time coming for the spotlight to shine on the Rising Scholar students.

“We are going to work all together and make sure we continue to grow this,” Umana said.

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