From Prisoner to Scholar

Cal State Fullerton, among other CSU campuses, helps students make a positive change in their lives with Project Rebound.

Written by: Angelica O’Campo | Photos by: Sheryl Posadas

Romarilyn Ralston (Project Rebound Coordinator)

“Before prison, I felt like I didn’t really belong anywhere,” Romarilyn Ralston, coordinator of Cal State Fullerton’s new Project Rebound program, explains.

“I didn’t feel like I was respected, appreciated, like anyone valued me. I allowed things in my life that I shouldn’t have allowed. I was neglected and abused. I experienced all of those things,” she says.

CSUF is taking initiative, along with a number of other California State University campuses, to help individuals continue their higher education and break the cycle of recidivism by providing current and formerly incarcerated students with access to resources to help them transition and navigate the college system.

“The vision of Project Rebound is to work to end the revolving door structure of mass incarceration and the cycle of elimination,” Professor Brady Heiner adds.

Professor Brady Heiner (left), Romarilyn Ralston (right)

Heiner, director of Project Rebound at CSUF, explains how distorted media representations and the culture industry produce a false representation of individuals in the criminal justice system. Project Rebound seeks to change the assumed narratives of previously incarcerated people.

“Dominant media representations generate stereotypes that prevent us from seeing the nuance and humanity of folks who inhabit that social position,” Heiner says. “Project Rebound seeks to provide mechanisms for folks to be able to tell their own stories.”

“Education informs you and raises your consciousness and opens your heart and mind and your eyes to other ways of interacting with people, other ways of experiencing life.”

Ralston reveals how most people find themselves incarcerated. It is because they are underemployed, undereducated, experiencing some type of poverty in their lives, lacking a family structure or supportive community, or coming from impoverished communities where school funding is limited and school accreditation is non-existent.

“Your need for fun, survival, freedom and power — a lot of times you can get them out in the streets and a lot times you achieve one of those things by hurting other people,” Ralston adds.

Ralston works to help Project Rebound students earn a degree. She understands what it feels like to serve time in prison and have her life become overshadowed by her past. Nevertheless, Ralston earned a bachelor’s degree from Pitzer College in Claremont and later a master’s in liberal arts from Washington University.

“Education informs you and raises your consciousness and opens your heart and mind and your eyes to other ways of interacting with people, other ways of experiencing life. It enriches you and changes the quality of your life and your positionality and you don’t longer feel like someone’s doormat,” Ralston says.

Growing up, Ralston stargazed a lot. She dreamed of being an astronaut and aspired to become one. She loved school and books and always had an attraction to college. After high school, she applied for the Boost Navy program, took the ACT and got accepted to San Diego State University, but she ended up getting pregnant. She waived her opportunity to go to college and instead enlisted in active duty, where she became an engine mechanic and worked on airplanes. A few years later, she found herself in prison.

“The conditions of prison tell you that you are worthless, undeserving, undesirable, uneducated and unworthy, and when you are fortunate enough to get out of those places you are crawling around on your belly for a while and that is why people go back,” Ralston explains.

For many Project Rebound students, their sense of worth and self-esteem is a big issue. Many have internalized negative perceptions as their own and often struggle to shed that false representation of themselves.

“Your self-esteem, your self-worth and the way you think about yourself as deserving of access to these types of institutions on the outside gets diminished because there is so much guilt, shame and embarrassment attached to going to prison. You just want to crawl in a hole and you just want to be invisible,” Ralston says.

For many previously incarcerated individuals, continuing higher education is a coming-out process and can be very challenging. Often, the environment of prison strengthens the low self-esteem and identity issues many have carried since youth.

There are times when Ralston still needs to remind herself, “I am not that person and I am not that crime. I can’t fail. I have to succeed — there is a lot of pressure on me by me to succeed because a lot of my life there were these moments I was not successful,” Ralston shares.

Other programs in Orange County also are trying to address the relationship between the criminal justice system and access to higher education.

“There needs to be more of a mental support in schools. I think mental support that is intentional along with restorative justice practices can be efficient,” says Carlos Perea, the policy and programs director of OC Resilience. This organization focuses on engaging youth in critical work for social-systemic change.

“My students have shared that they want to show their parents what they’re capable of doing. Some of their goals are to right the wrongs of the past.”

Perea explains how a young person is like a ticking bomb, and once it can no longer hold the pressure it pops.

Project Rebound office

“That pop can look like one completely deviated from school, getting in trouble … getting kicked out of school. The second one can be related to gangs and the third one and something we see a lot with the youth we work with is self-esteem breakdown and less motivation. So this youth will graduate from high school, but whether they will continue to higher education is something we should be concerned about,” Perea adds.

OC Resilience works to address the school-to-prison pipeline by providing youth with the tools and knowledge necessary for them to engage in advocacy and systems change. OC Resilience provides a holistic framework for school districts based on mental support, civic engagement, political development and also restorative justice practices.

Brenda Beza has worked with previously incarcerated students at Taller San Jose Hope Builders as a career and education specialist. “My students have shared that they want to show their parents what they’re capable of doing. Some of their goals are to right the wrongs of the past. They want to balance out the negative with all the positives they are capable of achieving through education and employment,” Beza says.

Beza views access to higher education for those caught in the criminal justice system as supremely important in understanding various aspects of the human condition.

“Their perspective on poverty, violence, lived experiences in low socioeconomic status regions, and policy is highly critical to our understanding of these issues,” Beza adds.

Ralston’s vision of success for Project Rebound is a 100 percent graduation rate. The first cohort of Project Rebound is composed of eight transfer students enrolled in upper division courses. It is expected for most of them to walk in one or two years, with one of them graduating in May. There are six incoming scholars in the fall. Many Project Rebound students share similar goals of giving back to their communities by becoming teachers, social workers, entrepreneurs and lawyers.

“For many, it’s too painful,” Ralston says. “It takes a lot of strength to get out of prison and say I am going to carry a backpack. I’m going to go to class. I’m going to make a difference. Because I committed a crime I may not be a surgeon, but I can be something close to that. I am going to be that and break that cycle.”