When Irene Sotelo transferred to California State University Long Beach in 2016, she didn’t realize that in turning a new leaf, she and her new colleagues were forging a legacy that would help other students who had been formerly incarcerated navigate college.
Sotelo, who is currently working on her own master’s degree, is the co-founder of Rising Scholars, a student-run organization at CSULB that is a resource for formerly incarcerated students who have been impacted by the criminal justice system and allies, whose goal is to also foster a sense of belonging. The program helps members navigate through the college process.
According to Sotelo, she was looking for a change when she began her higher education journey and enrolled at Cerritos College. She had traversed a road of addiction after going into remission from cervical cancer in the late 90s. Sotelo became addicted to the pain medication that had been prescribed to her and when she could no longer get it, she was introduced to meth. For Sotelo, this gave her the freedom to do everything she wasn’t able to do while bedridden. During this time, she lost her home and she lost her family. She also temporarily lost her freedom.
“I was sentenced to 3 years, but you get half the time for good behavior, so 18 months,” Sotelo said of the time she spent in prison after being found in a Long Beach motel with fake credit card numbers while having drug transportation charges pending.
Years after leaving prison, she found herself in the classroom of James Binnall, assistant professor of law, criminology, and criminal justice at CSULB. He connected her with other students who had been formerly incarcerated, Adrian Vasquez and Joe Luis Hernandez, and Rising Scholars was born.
Rising Scholars has been responsible for a number of campus events that address issues that impact students who were formerly incarcerated. One such event was a panel, “From Death to Life,” that included actor Danny Trejo, whose goal was to discuss how those who have been formerly incarcerated are portrayed, as reported by the campus newspaper The Daily 49er.
The Rising Scholars Education Lab is another resource the student organization provides where members offer at-risk-youth and people who have been formerly incarcerated, guidance on higher education and college applications.
With the pandemic still underway, Rising Scholars looks different than it did last year, trading its familial conference room meetings for Zoom.
“I thought it was going to be a challenge […] but I found that this past couple of weeks, I have more people,” Sotelo said to the Signal Tribune of her last meeting, where members that had not been able to attend previous meetings due to scheduling conflicts, showed up.
She happily announced that Rising Scholars had a new member, a student she had met in one of her classes, who was also interested in joining the recently announced Project Rebound chapter at CSULB.
“We are going to combine efforts because we serve the same population,” Sotelo said of the student org and the campus program. “Rising Scholars is for everybody that wants to be involved to help, they don’t have to be formerly incarcerated, we have allies, we have system impacted [folks] and we’ve become a family.”
Project Rebound at CSULB
According to Binnall, one of the major goals when starting Rising Scholars was to bring Project Rebound to CSULB and almost three years later it’s becoming a reality.
According to the California State University website, Project Rebound is a program that supports the reintegration and higher education of formerly incarcerated folks who enroll at the California State University.
“By connecting students with critical resources, Project Rebound constructs an alternative to the revolving door policy of mass incarceration and increases community strength and safety,” the CSU website states.
The program was started in 1967 by professor John Irwin in order to enroll students at San Francisco State “directly from the criminal justice system.”
According to Binnall, who is the Executive Director of the program, the groundwork is currently being laid out for the CSULB chapter and he hopes to have everything ready by the end of the academic year.
Students who were formerly incarcerated are already expressing interest in Project Rebound according to Sotelo. “They’re coming in, the ones who didn’t self-identify are now self-identifying,” she said.
“You can finally take that breath of relief, it’s here,” Sotelo said. “Our hard work is done so far. We made it to this point, the finish line, we crossed that line already.”
Project Rebound Cal State LA
For a glance at what Project Rebound does for students who were formerly incarcerated, look no further than California State University Los Angeles.
Allen Burnett, a Project Rebound member, proudly shared with his then high school-aged daughter a lot of the work he was doing at Cal State LA while he was a resident in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations (CDCR).
“She was so inspired that she wanted to become a teacher […],” Burnett said. “And so she ended up applying to Cal State LA when she graduated from high school.”
Burnett stated to the Signal Tribune that he was incarcerated for 28 years without the possibility for parole after being charged with being an “aider and abetter in kidnap, robbery, murder.” In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom commuted his sentence.
Burnett had turned to higher education while in prison, earning an AA in three different areas and started work on his bachelor’s. Right before coming out of prison, he received a letter from Project Rebound letting him know that they were available.
“[…] I was able to share that with my parole board in regards to my support group,” Burnett said. “When I come out, not only do I have my parole officer, my family, I also [have] Project Rebound as well.”
“It’s been super beneficial,” Burnett said of the program. “It’s helped me with socialization and being able to know that there are other returning citizens who are part of Project Rebound who have paved the way for individuals like myself to have some success with the college experience[…].”
Among some of the resources Burnett is currently receiving is enrollment in CalFresh and support with navigating programs like Canvas or Zoom at any time he may need it.
Burnett shared that one of the struggles for people like himself, returning citizens who are older, is the intimidation that comes with asking someone half their age for help and not understanding it on the first try, but it’s situations like these that Project Rebound alleviates.
Currently, Burnett is one semester away from finishing his bachelor’s degree in communication studies with an emphasis on organizational communication and consults for an organization that helps residents in CDCR prepare for the parole board and the attorneys that are assigned to represent them.
“There is an avenue for people that are incarcerated to be able to come out and still earn a degree and receive help,” […] Burnett said. “You can actually come home and become a professor[…] There are resources available, don’t shirk your opportunity to earn your ticket to higher education.”