UCSB Program Helps Formerly Incarcerated Students

Underground Scholars Offer Support for Academic Success

UCSB Program Helps Formerly Incarcerated Students 

Underground Scholars Offer Support
for Academic Success

By Ryan P. Cruz | December 23, 2021

BUILDING A PRISON-TO-SCHOOL PIPELINE:  The Underground Scholars program at UCSB provides wraparound resources to students who have been affected by the criminal justice system. From left to right, Lisandra Barrera-Rising, Ryan “Flaco” Rising, Juan Bran-Gudiel, Luis Muñoz, Melissa Ortiz and Gilberto Murillo. | Credit: Erick Madrid

In 2013, while serving a seven-year prison sentence in New Folsom State Prison, Ryan “Flaco” Rising joined other inmates on a 33-day hunger strike to demand, among other resources, access to college-level courses. Their protest succeeded, and many lives were changed.

Once college courses became available, “we started studying,” Rising said, “and we were no longer talking about the dirt we did in the hood; we were sharing our papers and supporting each other. The whole mentality shifted from breaking each other down to ‘Hey, can you help me with this algebraic expression? Can you help me write this research paper?’” It stopped being “Who’s the hardest?” and became “Who’s the smartest?” “We became ‘gangsta’ nerds,” Rising said.

Eight years later, Rising has become the program coordinator for UC Santa Barbara’s Underground Scholars Initiative — which he started building from the ground up in September 2019. Underground Scholars is the university’s first-ever program tailored to help formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students succeed in the higher education culture.

Underground Scholars provides wraparound resources, including a “warm handoff system,” which helps these students adjust and succeed at the university level. This includes assistance with enrollment, housing, finances, career counseling, mental and physical health, and academic tutoring. It is one of three similar programs in the county. Santa Barbara City College has the Transitions program, and Allan Hancock College has the Beyond Incarceration Greater Education (BIGE) Club. In its third year, the UCSB initiative now has more than 20 members, eight of whom will be graduating this May.

Juan Bran-Gudiel (left) and Luis Muñoz | Credit: Erick Madrid

Alive and Thriving

Underground Scholars recently held its third annual Formerly Incarcerated Student Day & Resource Fair, where 60 members from all three programs gathered to get to know one another. It also gave the community college students a chance to learn about the UCSB program. After a few welcoming speeches, the visitors were taken on a “campus activism” tour, during which they were given a quick history of how Black and Brown student activists had pushed the university closer to achieving its ideals of equity, diversity, and inclusion over the decades.

The community college students — mostly older, some heavily tattooed, and many Latino — seemed eager to learn about the campus. A number of them had already applied for admission and found the event encouraging. Discovering the Underground Scholars program gave them a sense that, even though they were not the usual UCSB demographic, they would find a supportive group of students welcoming them to the campus with open arms — even if the university itself was not always so welcoming.

Rising himself could relate to the feeling of being an outsider. “It’s been a struggle,” he said. “Sometimes I think they still look at us like we’re lowlifes and criminals. Sometimes I feel treated like a liability instead of an asset.” But he is certain this program plays an important part in the campus’s long history of progressive activism, which he believes has been a slow but continual movement forward. 

The event also marked the launch of Thrive SBC, a new app intended to be a one-stop shop for anybody in the county who has been impacted by the criminal justice system. The website will now make it easier to connect to resources for food, housing, legal advice, mental and physical health, transportation, and substance abuse counseling.

 One of the engineers who created the app, Victor Sauceda, learned to code in prison through Code for America. The new online resource directory, he said, is much more accessible. The traditional method to find helpful information was cumbersome and difficult to navigate. Often, the only option was to wade through flyers tacked to the probation office’s bulletin board, most of which were outdated or scribbled over with indiscernible penciled notes. “Now you don’t have to know five handshakes and a password to reach resources,” Sauceda said. 

Lisandra Barrera-Rising, the Underground Scholars student ambassador at SBCC, was thrilled at the launching of the new app. “You could be on the phone for three hours before reaching someone,” she said. “If I had that back when I was going through my stuff, that would’ve saved my life.” Barrera-Rising is hoping to join her partner, Flaco Rising, at UCSB this fall. 

Another important milestone will be on January 19, 2022, when an art exhibit, Beyond the Wall, featuring work by formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students, will open at UCSB’s Davidson Library. It will be the first exhibit of its type on campus.

Dismantling Trauma

For many of the students returning to college after serving time behind bars or coming out of the other side of drug and alcohol addiction, many barriers can be more than just a pebble in the road. Most times, their experiences come with trauma and emotional baggage that make it difficult to jump through the hoops of red tape common at higher-level institutions.

Juan Bran-Gudiel is a fourth-year Chicano Studies student at UCSB, serving as the Gaucho Underground Scholars Recruitment Coordinator. When he first transferred from Los Angeles Valley College, he didn’t know about the program and felt like a fish out of water from the first day he arrived on campus. Just trying to navigate the financial aid offices was discouraging. “Every day, I was ready to leave school. I felt out of place,” he said. 

These feelings, known as imposter syndrome, are common among these transferring students. Rising sees the syndrome everywhere. “I see severe depression; I see feeling isolated and alone, feeling like you don’t belong in these spaces,” he said.

Sociology major and Underground Scholar Melissa Ortiz agreed. When she transferred from SBCC, she felt like she was in over her head. “Finding out there was a program, I felt more at ease going to UCSB,” she said.

Ortiz said that now whenever she starts to feel out of place, she remembers that she earned her spot. “I just power through it,” she said. “I’m here because I belong here. I got accepted because I belong here.”

Luis Muñoz is the Underground Scholars’ coordinator for its Health is Wealth exercise and nutritional program. Muñoz is a firm believer that mental and physical wellness helped him overcome his struggles with addiction and helped him process years of childhood trauma. “It was empowering. I started believing in myself,” he said. 

Muñoz leads the Underground Scholars in weekly workouts that Rising and his family have found to be a critical part of the healing process. Like many in the program, Rising was raised in an environment of violence, drugs, and physical and mental abuse. “I went through drug addiction, physical and mental abuse, and incarceration as a juvenile. I don’t want any 12-year-old kid to go through what I did at that age in juvenile hall: spirit broken, dehumanized, treated like I didn’t belong. All this hate that was inside of me is because of how I was treated in juvenile hall.” 

Later, when he was in prison, he found himself processing the trauma of his youth through writing and learning. He said the pain, anger, and resentment took years to overcome, but it was programs like Underground Scholars that were able to teach him the skills necessary to succeed.

Ryan “Flaco” Rising and Lisandra Barrera-Rising | Credit: Erick Madrid

Prison-to-School Pipeline

Building programs catering to a group that is often overlooked is no easy task. The first one in Santa Barbara County was at SBCC. Noel Gomez and Martin Leyva created Transitions, as an eight-week summer bridge program to prepare students coming from jail or rehab.

It took a lot of effort to get it off the ground — at the time, there were only three such programs across the state — but over the past 13 years, such programs have grown into a year-long all-encompassing pathway toward a college, including specialized tutors and instructors to help every step of the way.

Gomez has also started teaching college-credit courses at Santa Barbara’s Main Jail in 2015, which included an eight-week personal development program. This November a cohort of 22 students passed, for a 100 percent completion rate. A handful of SBCC administrators and Transitions staff were invited to attend the ceremony. In an intimate gathering held in one of the jail’s concrete recreational yards, each student received a certificate and college credits.

At UCSB, Rising faced a similar uphill battle starting Underground Scholars. “It’s been digging in the weeds,” he said. “This is a campus that’s never had any type of program for formerly incarcerated people. Sometimes they really seemed about it, and other times it felt like I was getting lip service.”

When he arrived on campus, he wondered if he’d made the right choice. He felt like an outcast. “You go to prison; you serve your debt to society. When you go home, you find out you’re serving a life sentence to your community,” he said.

The lowest point for him came one day when he was walking on his way to campus and was stopped by the Isla Vista Foot Patrol. He was forced to sit on the curb and answered what he called the usual questions: What’s your name? Where are you going? Who are you with? 

By the time the cops let him go, he was late for his appointment with his professor and mentor Rick Benjamin. When he finally got to the office, he was determined to get out of UCSB. But Benjamin suggested a different response, which changed his perspective: Reach out to your professors, he told Rising, and always be honest with your past. 

“The only way we can erase that stigma is to own it,” Rising said. “Announcing: ‘Hey, I’ve made some mistakes in my past, but here I am. I’ve got a 3.97 grade point average, and I’ve overcome all those mistakes.’”

At first, Rising said the university was hesitant to offer full support to the program, or at least that’s how it seemed. “Where’s the scholarships for formerly incarcerated students? There is none. Why is that? Why can’t we have these things?”

But once they saw that the program was modeled after ones on other UC campuses such as Berkeley and Los Angeles, he was able to gain support from the university. “If we don’t do it, nobody else is gonna do it for us,” Rising said. “If they were gonna build this program, they would’ve built it.”

Nine UCs now offer such programs: Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Merced, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz. Almost all have been started by those who have been affected by the criminal justice system. Rising hopes that these programs will gain support for these students, reverse generations of conditioning, and flip the school-to-prison pipeline. 

Building a prison-to-school pipeline relies on transferring skills from students’ past lives to succeed in their new environments, Rising said. “We’ve been bringing these transferable skills from the streets into the university, and we’ve been reclaiming our stories.”

Melissa Ortiz and Gilberto Murillo | Credit: Erick Madrid

Credible Messengers

In all the programs geared toward formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students, there is a common thread of using tough experiences to help those who are struggling with the same problems. Simply put, when it comes to counseling others through addiction, nobody is more knowledgeable and credible than a former addict.

Rising became fascinated with this idea once he began his education journey. He wrote papers detailing the effects of drugs and made a decision to study sociology because he thought that if somebody was going to study gang members, it should be somebody who has lived through it.

Underground Scholars Advocacy Coordinator Gilberto Murillo is a fourth-year sociology and political science student at UCSB who grew up in the historically over-policed and gang-affected area of Norwalk, in Los Angeles County. After being arrested for being in a vehicle with a firearm, he was charged with homicide and a gang enhancement, which was eventually reduced to a stolen property charge. This experience set Murillo on a path to pursue his education and dissect the origin of American policing laws and the effects on those who live in these heavily policed areas.

Murillo plans to travel to Palestine in the summer, where he will start working on a study comparing military occupation and marginalization of Palestinians to police actions and treatment of gang members in California. He hopes that research like this will make policy-making more resource-oriented. “How can we allocate resources into this community?”

He also spoke of the challenge facing those who grew up in neighborhoods with many gangs: There can be those from your old life who don’t want to see you succeed. “They’re concentrated in despair,” he said. “We see somebody excel and wanna grab them by the ankles.” He hopes to create something tangible for these communities and give back to help the next generation.

Arturo “Cheech” Raygoza is the president of the BIGE Club at Allan Hancock, and the Underground Scholars’ ambassador there. He hopes to transfer to either UC Santa Barbara or Berkeley. Raygoza recently spoke to members of Santa Barbara County’s probation department, sharing his experiences in the juvenile justice system and offering suggestions for rethinking how youth offenders are treated.

“I was 13 years old at Los Prietos; all they taught me was how to be a gangster,” he said. “There was no rehabilitation.”

It’s something they all have in common and something Rising tries to cultivate along their journey. “What makes them credible is that they went through it, and then they overcame it and built their own blueprint to success,” he said. “Share your story. Your narrative makes you credible. It empowers you to make an impact to create change. Use your story, broadcast your story, and don’t walk around with any type of shame.”

Celebrating Progress

Credit: Erick Madrid

President of the SBCC Foundation Geoff Green was in attendance at the Transitions ceremony at the Main Jail. After the event, Green sent an email calling the experience “one of the most meaningful I’ve had in a long time.”

“After all these years, I’d never had a chance to see firsthand the power of it,” he wrote. “It was remarkable to meet some of the students and hear the stories.”

In May, the Gaucho Underground Scholars will host its first-ever “graduation gala” for the eight students set to graduate this year. Local community college and high school graduates from similar programs will also be invited to attend.

“Instead of these students carrying on life sentences, it’s time to celebrate their successes and give them the confidence,” Rising said, “so they can go out and become leaders in their communities.”

And the students aren’t just passing; they’re excelling. Bran-Gudiel and Murillo are at 3.8 and 3.9 GPAs, respectively. Rising himself holds a 3.97 GPA and is planning on earning his PhD in sociology. “One day, they’re gonna call me Dr. Flaco,” he said with a smile.

The Underground Scholars program just received a $1.75 million grant, which Rising hopes will be used to expand the current resources even more. “It’s not about us today; it’s about that next person that’s gonna come tomorrow, so everything we do today, we’re setting it up for all the formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students that are going to come tomorrow.”

“We have a whole network of formerly incarcerated students across the state earning bachelors, masters, and more,” he said. “If you sat in a prison cell, you best believe you can do anything in your life. If you survive that, you can go through any of it.”


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