With the aim to shift the school-to-prison pipeline to a prison-to-school pipeline, the Underground Scholars Initiative (USI) at UCLA is using higher education as an alternative to incarceration. As a student-led organization, USI seeks to bridge the gap between the academic theoretical discourse of mass incarceration to one that is grounded in the lived experiences of UCLA and its people. The organization focuses on creating a space for formerly incarcerated individuals who want to pursue a higher education. USI is formed by individuals who come from different walks of life and through their efforts, they have built an authentic space for all participants.
As a three-piece program, USI aims to create a pathway from incarceration to education through recruitment, retention and advocacy. Javier Rodriguez, one of the co-founders and current co-chairs of the organization, believes that it is necessary to create a space where individuals can easily transition into the culture of their new college. While the majority of the members arrive as transfer students, USI helps them become strong leaders as they adjust to a new space and educational environment. From workshops and mentorships to guidance, USI members are given the help they need to navigate in the educational system.
Rodriguez helped USI become an official organization in 2016 and since its establishment; it has helped create incredible opportunities for others. “The fact that only 2% of the people in the community in Watts have a Master’s Degree and people are losing their lives, we have to fight back and bridge the gap,” says Javier Rodriguez in reference to the lack of educational opportunities in his hometown. Javier, who has been formerly incarcerated and was on probation until he was 20, believes it is his obligation to inspire change in the lives of those who want to pursue something better for themselves.
Through their outreach, USI has networked with individuals from Santa Monica College, Compton College, Glendale Community College, and many others. USI helps students get jobs, scholarships, fellowships and even visas to allow for traveling. Despite starting with only five members, USI at UCLA is now comprised of thirty dedicated members. These passionate individuals are breaking the stigmas behind formerly incarcerated people as they seek to be role models to their communities here in LA.
The USI at UCLA is a busy group year-round. They host film screenings, weekly socials and workshops, and most notably the Beyond the Bars Conference, which they host every year. Additionally, in the spring, USI hosts a cultural festival where they bring cultural vendors and community performers who speak about the social justice movement, drug dismantling and uniting people of color.
With their annual graduation quickly approaching, USI has chosen to host its graduation at Homeboy Industries for the first time. As they come together to commemorate the hard work they’ve done over the year, USI is uplifted by the strong impact they continue to have. With goals to expand and create a physical space where students can come and be inspired by this vision of education, USI is taking one step at a time.
“The Undergraduate Scholars Initiative would like to thank the Student Affairs Program, administrators and the UCLA community for supporting our organization. We would like to give a special thanks to Jose Ortega. As a founding member, he has given our organization the fire we need to push forward. May he rest in peace,” says Rodriguez with immense gratitude as the organization has received an overwhelming support for its efforts.
For the passion and dedication to bridging the gap of education to formerly incarcerated students, the Volunteer Center Fellows at UCLA are pleased to award the Underground Scholars Initiative with the Mongelli Award for Excellence in Civic Engagement for Fall 2018.
To learn more about the organization or how you can get involved, visit their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/USI.UCLA/.