The Underground Scholars Initiative (USI), a peer support system for previously incarcerated and system impacted students, has come UC Santa Cruz, with a new chapter that began operations this past fall. Beginning with a single program at UC Berkeley in 2013, the program now operates at seven UC campuses, providing services such as counseling support, financial literacy, internship and job opportunities, and a community of individuals from diverse backgrounds that members can rely on before and after graduation.
Although higher education is one of the best predictors of successful reentry, without the support and resources available through programs like USI, formerly incarcerated individuals are eight times less likely to complete college than their peers according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The Rising Scholars Program in the community college system, Project Rebound in the Cal States, and USI chapters in the UC system all work to improve those numbers by encouraging enrollment and retention through resources and support.
As Daniel Davis, a member of the UCSC USI community puts it: “We find that people that have been impacted by incarceration often don’t fit in with the crowd that is typically at a world-class university. A sense of belonging is something that has to be cultivated through resources, community, and general acceptance.”
“Having [an] exposure to a diversity of people and things really helps people to put in perspective and take control over their lives,” said core leadership team member and fourth-year UCSC transfer student Missy Hart. “[We encourage them to] take control over their lives, their stories, and help them in a way that’s going to be positive for themselves and everyone else around them.”
Funding for the USI chapter at UCSC comes from the Renaissance Scholars Program, Services for Transfer and Re-entry Students (STARS) – both student support offices at UCSC – and from individual donors and grants, including from the original UC Berkeley chapter. A large part of the funding went to hiring a director, Joshua Solis, a recent UCSC graduate.
“It was through the overwhelming support of STARS and Renaissance Scholars that allowed for Underground Scholars at UCSC to emerge as a support program for formerly incarcerated and system impacted students,” Solis said. “The funding that was allocated to Underground Scholars emphasizes their commitment in building capacity for supporting all of our students at STARS.
The UCSC Underground Scholars are hosting a virtual introductory event on Wednesday, February 24: