“At least 95 percent of people in prison will eventually be released, and their ability to access and complete some form of a college degree or credential will increase their chances of overcoming post-incarceration barriers. Going from prison to earning a college degree or credential opens the doors to new possibilities of careers, economic mobility, housing, health care, civic engagement, and the uplifting of entire families and communities.”

The Bruin Underground Scholars Program supports the educational pursuits of formerly incarcerated and system-impacted individuals. In this article, Bruin Resource Center Assistant Director Valeria Garcia shares the impact of the program and how Bruin families can support the program’s efforts.

The Bruin Underground Scholars Program (BUS) was created in late 2019. BUS joins other programs in the Bruin Resource Center, a department under Student Affairs, whose work focuses on supporting marginalized student communities through identity-based programs. The Bruin Underground Scholars Program is the second program established across the UCs with a focus on supporting the educational pursuits of formerly incarcerated and/or system-impacted individuals.

The establishment of the BUS program is a result of student advocacy. Several students who had been impacted by incarceration came together to begin fostering a community with other students from similar backgrounds. These students created the Underground Student Initiative student organization, through which members outreached to incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students; organized events to create awareness; advocated for policy change; and corresponded with incarcerated students interested in continuing their education. Their efforts and continuous advocacy led to the creation of the BUS program, where our goal is to continue the work started by students, and expand our reach and support to individuals impacted by the carceral system.

Educational programs aimed to increase access and support to incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and system-impacted individuals are critical. Upon release, many formerly incarcerated individuals are met with systemic barriers preventing them from moving forward with their lives. They encounter a myriad of discriminatory experiences from the stigma associated with incarceration, to housing and employment discrimination – two fundamental basic needs. Opportunities become bleak without stable housing and income, thus curtailing access to new prospects and a better life.

The Bruin Underground Scholars mission is simple: to cultivate a healthy community and pathway for incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and system-impacted people to thrive in higher education. We believe peoples’ lives are not defined by one moment or action, and that we all deserve second chances. It is no secret that a higher education degree can help with that.

To give additional context on the importance of programs like ours, Rodrigo Vazquez, a graduate student in the Master of Social Work program at Luskin School of Public Affairs and a graduate of UC Berkeley, offers the following insights on the barriers formerly incarcerated students face in their educational pursuits:

“Formerly incarcerated students have as much potential and hunger for success as a traditional high school student with all A’s. We deserve to access higher education while serving their time and a chance to create our own destiny.”

We currently host office hours to meet with prospective and current students, organize events to connect with and learn from students, and host information sessions for students interested in our program. We are working toward developing an advisory board, increasing education and awareness though ally trainings, and establishing an Incarcerated Student Program to provide assistance to incarcerated individuals who want an opportunity to earn a degree. You can learn more about our work and our students in this Daily Bruin article.

You can join our movement by engaging in one or more of the ways listed below:
Examining unconscious bias and prejudices toward those who are
or have been incarcerated
Learning new terminology related to those affected by the carceral system
Staying informed on issues involving the carceral system and its impact,
particularly on communities of color
Donating time, money and resources to the BUS program
Staying connected with us via our listserv, website and Instagram account

About the Author: Valeria Garcia joined the BRC in 2015 as the Undocumented Student Program Director. She is currently the Assistant Director of the Bruin Resource Center and in her role oversees the Undocumented Student Program and the Bruin Underground Scholars Program. Valeria is a first-generation and formerly undocumented college graduate. She earned a B.A. in Sociology and Human Development from CSU Long Beach and an M.S. in Community Development from UC Davis. Her personal experiences navigating higher education influenced her career in student affairs. ​