Courtesy of USI via HighlanderLink

When Jazmin Garcia first got accepted to UCR as a transfer student from Mount San Antonio College, she was unable to attend due to housing insecurity and transportation issues. She reapplied a year later, and that is where her journey with UCR’s Underground Scholars Initiative began. She was surprised to find out that the terms “formerly incarcerated students” and “system impacted students” were even part of people’s vocabulary. “I saw the light with the Underground Scholars,” she said.

As a student-parent, transfer student and Underground Scholar, she found her support system within the Underground Scholars Initiative at UCR. Garcia stated in an interview with The Highlander that USI has provided transformative experiences for her and the other 92 members of the organization. 

Since its founding in 2018, USI at UCR has created a pathway for formerly incarcerated and system impacted individuals into higher education and supports them in their academic journey. The goal of USI is to bridge the popular academic theoretical discourse of mass incarceration with one that is grounded in the real lived experiences of UCR students and the surrounding community. 

UC Riverside’s Underground Scholars Initiative recently received over $140,000 to expand the group’s programming. The money was gifted to UCR by the UC Berkeley Underground Scholars program via grants from the Andrew Mellon Foundation and the Crankstart Foundation to support the expansion of the Underground Scholars Initiative UC-wide.

The UCR chapter of the Underground Scholars represents the campus with the highest number of formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students across the UC, according to Garcia. However, the exact number of formerly incarcerated college students in California is unknown, primarily because colleges and universities do not systematically collect this information.

The Mellon Foundation grant to Berkeley’s Underground Scholars is $1 million over two years, and UCR’s USI will receive a subgrant from the Mellon Foundation for $90,000 per year. The funds should be used to hire a full-time director as a contract employee for one year to develop and expand Underground Scholars at UCR.

The Crankstart Foundation grant is $250,000 over three years. The funds will be allocated between the nine UC campuses. UCR will receive a subgrant of $28,500 for the first year. The money will be used to hire student workers, develop programs, host events, purchase materials and to supply other needs related to recruitment and retention of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students.

In a letter addressed to the administration at UCR and Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox, USI urged the university to find an institutional home for the funds before the May 30 deadline and match their accomplishments by doubling the amount of the grant money and increasing their support of USI through supplemental resources, including an official space on campus for the program. If the funds were not housed within one of UCR’s departments, they may lose out on the grant money. 

Garcia told The Highlander that it has been difficult finding an institutional home for the funds and that they have received some pushback from administration. According to Garcia, the Office of Student Affairs told members of USI that they would not be able to house the funds due to staffing concerns as well as space issues and uncertainty in the sustainability of the program. Currently, the Office of Student Affairs has four staffers to support nine student programs, and adding on a tenth would not be plausible, explained Garcia.

“It was devastating,” stated Garcia. If the group did not find an institutional home for the funds by May 30, UC Berkeley would have to withhold the grant.

In a meeting with the CHASS Dean’s Office on May 26, they discussed the possibility of housing the funds if it was done in collaboration with the Office of Student Affairs in order to split the workload. The results are still being discussed, but USI’s new deadline to solidify the collaboration is June 11. 

On May 26, ASUCR wrote a letter in support of the Underground Scholars, urging the Office of Student Affairs to support and house the funding awarded to USI stating, “As a campus that is ranked No. 1 in social mobility and prides itself on diversity, it’s critical that we support and enrich our campus community members.” 

Since its creation, USI has been run and led by its own students, and they have made it a priority to be as visible on campus as they could be, participating in tabling events every single week before the campus closure. “We have a tent in the car, we have a wagon in the car, we have chairs in our car, a table, brochures, all these things just in our trunks…” stated Garcia, emphasizing the need for an actual space on campus. 

Garcia stated that the Underground Scholars at UCR need the extra support from the university to provide student advising, counseling, transfer analysis, major preparation, technical support and other academic assistance that is currently being done by the 92 students and members of USI. For formerly incarcerated students, something like R’web and navigating iLearn, Zoom and Google Docs may be difficult to understand and familiarize themselves with. Garcia has been the point of contact for prospective Underground Scholars at UCR, and while she is happy and willing to take on the work, it has taken a significant toll on her GPA that almost prevented her from attending grad school. “That’s why we’re so excited for the program director, because now we have a point of contact here at UCR that can connect our students to all these different departments.”

One prospective student did not have a computer but was eager to become involved with USI before enrolling at UCR. As a result, members of USI gathered their personal funds to provide them with a computer to be able to connect with them virtually.

“This funding is a huge opportunity for formerly incarcerated students because it’s tough, it’s a lot of work,” stated Garcia. 

As her time as a UCR Undergraduate comes to a close, Garcia looks forward to pursuing a Ph.D. in education from UCR and continues to advocate for the administrative support of the Underground Scholars on campus.