By Juan Calvillo
Formerly incarcerated students are a part of many of California’s colleges and at East Los Angeles College they have a support system in the Education Justice Rising Scholars Center and program.
The new center is located at E1-104 in the Student Services building. The program provides formerly incarcerated students with resources for their continuing education.
These resources include help with signing up for classes, financial aid and connecting with other departments across ELAC’s campus.
Ethan Marquez is a first year ELAC student who is part of the Education Justice Rising Scholars program.
He said the program and center are a great help for him as he makes his way through his first year at college.
He said it’s the fact that he is surrounded by peers that know the situations he has faced and wrestled with that brings him comfort and a sense of belonging.
He said the program has students that can accept and understand him being a student who has had run-ins with the justice system.
“They [students in the program] have a lot of knowledge, so I feel like I am getting a lot out of it. Also, I feel like I can talk about things that in another class they would be like, ‘What? What is this kid saying? He’s been here, he’s been what, what are you talking about?’” Marquez said.
Elizandro Umana, coordinator for the center, said the center’s purpose is to help formerly incarcerated students as much as possible.
“We are a program for justice impacted individuals who want to pursue higher education. We support all students who identify as having been impacted by the justice system, either by directly being incarcerated or someone in their immediate family being incarcerated,” Umana said.
Umana said the center is helping students with support services including books and technology needs. He said there is a dedicated academic counselor for the students in the program.
He said there are plans for the students to go to conferences across the state and nation and for the center to host events at ELAC.
The program is also reaching out to other programs across campus to further the integration of formerly incarcerated students into programs like Rehabilitation Counseling, Law and even the Arts like Theater.
Umana said the goal is always to help students whether it be to get a certificate, a degree or to transfer to a four year school. Umana said the program has access to funding that will help make that possible.
He said connections with groups like Homeboy Industries and the Los Angeles County Probation Department make it easy for students to connect with the Education Justice Rising Scholars program at ELAC.
He said those interested could also search for the program online while still being incarcerated and make contact.
The formation of the program makes it easier for potential students to find it and become involved. He said California State Universities have a program called Project Rebound.
This program has the reach to help formerly incarcerated students, and the Education Justice Rising Scholars program is set to do the same thing at a community college level.
“Having us all under this Rising Scholars umbrella allows a student to come inside, and now they can say, ‘Hey, I’m looking for your Rising Scholars program,’ and now, boom, we have our office,” Umana said.
There is currently $10 million across the state dedicated to ongoing funding for 59 community colleges with Rising Scholar programs.
There are 21 colleges with Rising Scholar 2.0 grants, and ELAC has a Rising Scholar 1.0 grant.
ELAC’s program will get $516,000 over the next three years, and the funds will be dispensed in stages and comes from a grant from the California Community College Chancellor’s Office.
Umana said both Miguel Duenas, vice president of Student Services, and Alberto Roman, ELAC president, are big supporters of the program.
Duenas said the program is not only important to the college, but, to the community.
“Our Education Justice Rising Scholars program will increase the opportunities for many students and community members that wish to continue their educational journey at East Los Angeles College,” Duenas said.
Umana said the seeds for the program were planted many years ago. He was hired in 2015 to help the college work on equity for students, and in 2016 that work led to a connection with the Los Angeles County Probation Department.
This also connected Umana with youths in Juvenile Hall. Students that were formerly incarcerated spoke with Umana, noting that other groups, veterans, dreamers and others, had begun creating spaces for solidarity.
The students felt that formerly incarcerated students needed their own space as well. These students, many of whom came from the namesake for the club, gathered and created a club called Homeboy Scholars.
Since then there has been a drive to help serve currently and formerly incarcerated students.
A group named California Corrections to College linked together with community colleges, California State and University of California colleges to see what was being done to help formerly incarcerated students.
Julie Benevides, former ELAC vice president of Student Services, asked Umana to participate with this group.
From that experience, Umana asked Benevides to apply to participate in a fellowship with a leadership institute that was conducted in 2018.
This fellowship led Umana and a cohort, one of which was a formerly incarcerated student named Gilbert Vasquez, to create many of the ideas that are a part of the Education Justice Rising Scholars Center.
After the progress the cohort made, a grant from the CCCCO was given to ELAC at the end of 2018 for formerly incarcerated students.
Umana said the grant didn’t go directly to Student Services but rather helped formerly incarcerated students in programs like Addiction Studies.
The grant helped in the efforts to create a certificate for Addiction Studies, a certificate that many formerly incarcerated students earn.
Umana said Student Services have serviced current and formerly incarcerated youth since 2016 with the help of outreach and equity funds.
Currently the CCCCO grant is now flowing into Student Services and it has allowed for all formerly incarcerated students to have a place on campus to go to when they need support.
He said California is a leader in the incarceration industry. He said the number of incarcerated individuals is 549 per every 100,000 people in California.
He said the numbers came from www.PrisonPolicy.org. Using data from the site’s prison report in 2018, the site said the total incarcerated people in California is 239,000, this includes state, federal and local sites.
In a 2021 report the site found that numbers went down due to COVID-19 by about 20%, but the prison system as a whole was at 107% of the designed capacity.