Breaking the Chains: The Prison to School Pipeline

When we visualize a student preparing to head to one of the top universities in California, there’s always a certain image or criteria that society has fed us. But today things are changing, and students are leading the way in breaking those barriers for themselves and future generations. On May 28th and 29th, 2016, seven students, all from different regions of California, traveled up to the University of California, Berkeley to join the Underground Scholars as they connected bridges between community colleges and other U.C. campuses. The coming together of all of us was based on establishing a core of students who all have one common goal: breaking the school to prison pipeline.

So what’s so different between this weekend and any other Cal Day at UC Berkeley? Well, all these students are formerly incarcerated and achieving what most students dream of — obtaining higher education. So how is this being made possible? Through the leadership of other formerly incarcerated students at UC Berkeley, “The Underground Scholars Initiative (USI) is a student group at UC Berkeley that supports all current and prospective students impacted by mass incarceration, imprisonment, and involuntary detainment of any kind. One of our defining goals is to bridge the topic of mass incarceration that has been popularized in academia as a field of interest, and a subject of study, with one that is grounded in the lived experiences of UC Berkeley students.” Through training of community college campus leaders as USI Ambassadors and a Transfer Empowerment Day which consisted of a campus tour, admissions counseling, and a panel of Underground Scholars speaking about their experience as formerly incarcerated students in higher education, we were able to build bonds that will continue to free us from our chains.

Ryan Rising who was released from New Folsom State Prison in August of 2015 was one of the students who attended the weekend training at Berkeley. He just finished his first year at San Diego City College after obtaining 39 credits while in prison. Ryan knew the importance of education and how large a role it would play in his future. He is currently studying computer science and is looking to apply for transfer to UC Berkeley in the coming year. As we are both ambassadors for USI we will be using the tools that they have provided us with to open the doors to community college students in San Diego to enter the U.C. school system. We were also given the opportunity to connect with other students throughout California like Adam Solorzano, who is in San Diego bringing change to his college campus. Adam is in his second year at Grossmont Community College where he excels as an English student and is currently working as a tutor.

“It was an amazing experience at UC Berkeley. When I got to the campus, I felt like this is where I belong, but I still felt like is this for me. I met everyone who also came out. The homies, now that’s what I call them, looked like me, dressed like me, and spoke like me. I thought I would walk onto UC Berkeley as a foreigner not knowing where I would fit in, but it felt like home. We are here now, and it is time for us to make a change and not forget what we must do: our purpose is to help those left in the prisons, the neighborhoods, and lost with no one to guide them to the universities,” Adam said.

We cannot deny that we are not the faces you would see on a college campus let alone at UC Berkeley. Yet, we are making sure that as leaders we are paving the path for other formerly incarcerated students as they move forward into higher education. Thank you USI for an amazing experience — we will be back!                                        

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Maria Elena Morales

Maria Elena Morales

Maria Elena Morales, Co-founder and President of the Urban Scholars Union, a student organization that advocates for students with lived experience, committed to empowering all cultures transitioning from incarceration to education. She graduated from San Diego City College with a Liberal Art degree and has plans to use education as her foundation to advocate for those coming out of the criminal justice system. At 15 years old Maria Elena dropped out of the high school but went back and got her GED at the age of 21. A single mother of 5 children, she has managed to pave the way for her children and to teach them the importance of receiving an education at any age. She has also used her education to become a community leader in San Diego and is currently a JustLeadership USA Leading with Conviction 2016 Fellow, which is an advanced leadership training for formerly incarcerated, mid-senior level leaders with a specific and proven track record in advocacy and community organizing.

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