Op-ed: College brings hope to incarcerated students
Mission College in Santa Clara offers a hands-on hospitality management program for in-custody individuals. File photo.

A large body of research over the last few decades demonstrates education, including secondary  education, can significantly reduce the likelihood of an individual who has been incarcerated reentering the criminal justice system. Individuals who enroll in postsecondary education programs are 28% less  likely to be reincarcerated than those who do not.

Based on the research, many community colleges across California recognize that students in the criminal justice system often haven’t had access to secondary education. Less than 4% of formerly incarcerated individuals have a college degree compared to 29% of the general population.

Formed in 2020, the Rising Scholars Network built on the previous work of Corrections to College efforts and refined the focus to provide support for students in correctional settings. The outcome of these efforts in Santa Clara County led to a partnership of local community colleges working together, across service areas, to serve students who have been impacted by the criminal justice system.

Students who are incarcerated can move credits they earn while in custody to any of the campuses after release. Everything a typical student would receive is available for participants of the county’s College Collaborative System at no cost to the county or student. Partnering with the Sheriff’s Office through this impactful collaborative are Evergreen, Foothill, Gavilan, Mission, Ohlone and San Jose community colleges.

Students register for a variety of classes including business, hospitality management, operations, psychology of substance use and addiction, automotive repair, veterinarian assistance, digital media, communications and more. Since its inception, the College Collaborative has served more than 800 individuals, with 512 currently participating. Of the individuals who have participated, 75% did not return to the correctional system and transitioned into the college and employment opportunities of their choice.

It’s not only the skills the students acquire in custody that help them put food on the table once they’re released that matters, but also the confidence they gain knowing they are capable and attending college is possible.

One program that helps ease formerly incarcerated individuals into college classes and jobs is a free peer mentor certification program in drug and alcohol counseling through San Jose City College at the San Jose Reentry Resource Center. Students take four courses and earn a certificate to work in entry level positions in that field.

Many students completing this program have continued their college coursework to become state certified alcohol and drug counselors. They have been hired as community outreach specialists and case managers for the County’s Office of Diversion and Reentry Services, Santa Clara Valley Medical Center,  Goodwill of Silicon Valley, Family & Children Services of Silicon Valley and other organizations. Many of them continue to pursue college degrees. This program model could be replicated in many other academic fields.

Another novel program is Mission College’s hands-on hospitality management program for in-custody individuals, the first in the country. Supportive instructional settings have allowed these students to create meaningful relationships, learn new skills and gain employment with livable wage careers.

The testimonials from graduates of the College Collaborative are powerful.

“I never thought about college… I really had no hope… I had no direction… And now I have dreams of starting my own cafe. Education has been such a powerful tool that I never thought was possible,” Jared, a student who was released from custody and joined the Mission College campus, said.

The sheriff’s office and secondary schools involved in the College Collaborative continue to change lives, positively impacting families and the community.

Seher Awan is president of Mission College. Robert Jonsen is sheriff of Santa Clara County. Javier Aguirre is director of Santa Clara County’s Office of Diversion and Reentry Services.

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