STORY BY MONICA BADOLIAN, STAFF WRITER
Cypress College’s Rising Scholars Program (formerly known as LIFE Program) supports formerly incarcerated students in pursuing higher education. Their goal is to inspire and uplift the generations of current and future students who attend Cypress College for their education.
The Rising Scholars Program is a part of the Rising Scholars Collaborative, a group of California Community Colleges dedicated to serving incarcerated students by offering degree-granting programs in prisons and on-campus support for students who have dealt with the criminal justice system.
The program coordinator, Anne-Marie Beck, said a few words about the program. “When we first started as the Fight Club we had applied to the Leadership Institution through an organization called Corrections To College, that was the start of the Rising Scholars network. We decided to name ourselves the Rising Scholars Network and then the California Community Chancellor recognized that as an official program of the state.”
According to Beck, the school is unsure of the exact population of formerly incarcerated students because they have several different sets of data of students. She believes there are a couple hundred students on campus that are formerly incarcerated, however not all of them are a part of the Rising Scholars Program.
“There’s students on our campus that are formerly incarcerated that we’ve never met before or connected with before. Then there’s students in the Rising Scholars Program who did not identify as formerly incarcerated in their applications,” said Beck.
The program supports students by offering textbook vouchers to help with costly books and supplies. Rising Scholars Advocates (Mentors), a team of professionals who can provide support and resources for those on campus, emergency gift cards for students who run into financial difficulties and need gas, food, and other supports, Community Groups, Guest Speakers/Community Events, Advocacy Letters, and Transfer Connections.
Additionally, Beck talked about the traumatic experiences most formerly incarcerated students face and how it’s important not to judge someone based on their looks.
“Our students might look a certain way, they might have tattoos up their neck or on their face, or look ruffled on the edges. And the world kind of treats them in a certain way,” said Beck. “The fact is, prior to whatever addiction they may have had, there is a lot of trauma. The majority of our students have experienced extreme trauma. Like physical abuse, childhood sexual abuse, neglect, food insecurity, housing insecurity, and emotional abuse.”
Formerly incarcerated Cypress College student Regina Alcala, majoring in Psychology, shared her backstory on how she became incarcerated and how it changed her life.
“My mom was a drug addict to the point where I started selling Heroin just to keep her at home. I had my first child when I was 19 and I had my second child when I was 23. The relationship fell apart, and I lost my kids because I had nowhere to go. From there I gave up, I started stealing and I got caught a lot which led me to go to prison,” she said. Within six years Alacala lost her two children, went to prison, and gave birth to a new daughter.
After Alcala went to jail again and gave birth to her next child, she wanted to change but was unsure how. “I had no outside help, my mom wasn’t really dependable. Unfortunately, I gave birth when I was incarcerated and I had to sign parental rights to my mom because she was the only person I could contact. So I wanted to change because I didn’t want to leave my baby with my mom,” she said. Alcala ended up being bailed out by her now husband.
With her husband, Alcala moved to Orange County and found a home to raise their children. After she bought a home, she ended up marrying her now husband, and she owns multiple homes.
“From being homeless to now owning multiple homes. I’ve been clean and sober now for 11 years,” she said.
Alcala is now in her second semester at Cypress College but before her time here she never bothered to be a student on the campus, as she would only pass through it.
“I live down the street from the school, and there’s a shopping center on the other side so I would walk through the college as a shortcut to get there. I always thought it would be cool to go but it was just an inner thought or dream,” said Alcala. “Until one day I took a shortcut and I saw a flyer that said come and get your high school diploma and I thought that’s cool, I could do this.”
She signed up for the diploma and classes at Cypress as well. “I started going to school consistently. Needless to say I was tackling it, I found ways where I could get the books online, study at home and use my time as best as possible. I ended up graduating with honors, I was a valedictorian, I ended up speaking at the graduation,” Alcala said.
The Rising Scholars Program reached out to her and decided she would be a great sponsor for the program. Now, Alcala is a student representative and the outreach for Fight Club.
The Rising Scholars Program has helped Alcala grow as a person in many ways. “The confidence and understanding that I’m not alone, and who cares about the stereotype we have in our head. Because it can make you feel embarrassed,” she said.
“The fact that we’re all in this for the same purpose, we wanna be successful, we want to thrive and be our best. I think the biggest motivation of all is your education, what you put into it is what you get out of it.”
Alcala is working towards earning her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, and encourages students to reach out and not be afraid to speak.
“People need to be more engaged and not be embarrassed to reach out,” she said. As a student worker in the Transfer Center, Alcala said “Students should be well acknowledged of what offers are accessible to our personal criteria allowing us to take advantage of everything that is offered so that our learning and education capabilities are at their full potential.”