Donnie Veal, program coordinator for Rising Scholars, outside his office at Cabrillo College.
Donnie Veal, program coordinator for Rising Scholars, outside his office at Cabrillo College.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Cabrillo College

In Cabrillo College’s Rising Scholars program, formerly incarcerated students find pathway to higher education

Cabrillo College students are among the 20,000 incarcerated or formerly incarcerated students served by the Rising Scholars Network across California’s community college campuses, jails, prisons and juvenile detention centers. Led by Donnie Veal, who served 23 years behind bars before graduating this year from UC Santa Cruz, Cabrillo’s program “helped me build a bigger sense of community and establish in me a bigger sense of responsibility,” one student participant says.

When Bobi J. started his nine-month sentence at Santa Cruz County’s Rountree Medium Facility in Watsonville, he didn’t know who or what would be there for him when he got out.

During his incarceration for charges including forgery and false documents, he spent hours reflecting on how he had gotten to that place in his life and the ways that living in jail — where everything you do is determined by someone else’s orders — had totally changed who he was.

He wanted to give back to his community and find a way to ensure he wouldn’t end up in the same situation again. (Bobi asked that his full name not be included because his case is still ongoing.)

Then midway through Bobi’s sentence, Eli Chance, director of Cabrillo College’s Student Resource and Support Network, visited Rountree to tell the men there about a new program offered by the school.

Starting in spring, Chance told them, the program would bring instructors to the jail to teach in-person courses and provide support to the men to continue their studies at Cabrillo after their release.

Bobi said hearing those words from Chance was a revelation after spending several months behind bars with little engagement from the outside world. Chance showed the men a video describing the new program, Rising Scholars, which focuses on reducing barriers to education for people currently and formerly incarcerated.

“In the midst of that, people walk up with videos [talking about] a place, saying, ‘We’re there. It’s a place you can come any time. You can walk there, you can take a bus, you can get dropped off — you’re going to be welcomed. You don’t even have to join a class. We’re just there,’” Bobi recalled. “That is powerful.”

Donnie Veal (left) and Eli Chance discussing the Rising Scholars program at Cabrillo College.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Now, several months into launching the program, Cabrillo College students are among the 20,000 incarcerated or formerly incarcerated students served by the Rising Scholars Network across the state’s community college campuses, jails, prisons and juvenile detention centers. California State Universities and University of California campuses operate similar programs called Project Rebound and Underground Scholars, respectively.

Bobi and nine other incarcerated people at Rountree were the first students to attend Rising Scholars courses in the spring. The in-person courses focus on career exploration and personal development.

“What we’re really trying to do is bring in Cabrillo resources to the class,” said Kylie Kenner, who taught the personal development course in the spring. Kenner said she has personally seen how important it is that incarcerated people have access to education.

Studies show that the more education someone obtains while incarcerated, the less likely they are to return to the justice system. People who participate in education programs while incarcerated are 43% less likely to go back to prison, according to a study by Rand Corporation, a California-based research institute.

Rising Scholars’ own research shows that students who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated perform as well as or better in their studies than students who haven’t been affected by the justice system.

Donnie Veal, 51, understands this first-hand. He served 23 years behind bars, including time at San Quentin State Prison, for shooting someone in the legs before finding his way to Underground Scholars, a program similar to Rising Scholars that works with formerly incarcerated students attending UC Santa Cruz.

Earlier this year, Veal graduated UCSC with a degree in sociology. Cabrillo College recently hired him to lead its Rising Scholars program.

He says he’s living his dream job.

“While I was in prison, I dreamed of going back and changing things for myself — I can’t. But I feel like I can help people not make the wrong choices that I made that led me down that wrong path,” said Veal. “And this is the best way that I feel like I can come back, contribute, and really make a change and make things work.”

Rountree Medium Facility already offered educational classes at the facility, including poetry and substance-use disorder classes, but this is the first time Cabrillo College is teaching in-person courses there.

Renee Winter started teaching poetry in the Santa Cruz Main Jail seven years ago, after retiring from her law practice....

Students who participate receive a Cabrillo student ID, they’re offered help registering for their classes and also receive a certificate showing they completed the courses. The Rising Scholars program is also launching a club on campus and plans to expand its in-person courses to the Blaine Street women’s minimum-security jail, which recently reopened.

Kenner is the department chair for the Digital Management and Career Preparation program at Cabrillo. She’ll be teaching career development courses at Rountree, aiming to help students understand themselves and their roles as a team member in different environments like school, work and family. Bobi was one of Kenner’s students in the spring.

Kylie Kenner, Digital Management and Career Preparation department chair and instructor at Cabrillo College.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Kenner said she understands the barriers to education for people who are incarcerated. While growing up, Kenner watched her cousin go into and out of prison, and during that time, he didn’t have access to books.

“I always thought that that was really problematic,” she said. “How can this idea of ‘incarceration for rehabilitation’ happen if you don’t have books? That’s not going to happen.”

Cabrillo College’s new student trustee, Yefry Samael Mata Diaz, said the Rising Scholars program helped point him toward resources such as the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services — which provide financial, counseling and academic services to students affected by structural inequities. Most important, he said, it has been a welcoming group for those, like himself, who are transitioning from incarceration to higher education.

“Through Rising Scholars, I have met wonderful people who have been through similar situations that I’ve been through,” he said. “I think it’s helped me build a bigger sense of community and establish in me a bigger sense of responsibility.”

Diaz was born in Honduras and moved with his family at age 7 to the Monterey area, where he was raised. He currently lives in Marina.

He was first incarcerated at a youth center at age 16 for just over a year. Diaz studied briefly at Monterey Peninsula College before he was incarcerated again, first in the Monterey County Jail and then in prison for four years for burglary charges. He was released in 2021.

He spent the past couple of years working as a plumber until he was injured recently on the job. After the injury, Diaz decided to go back to school this past spring to study to be either a construction manager or project engineer.

Walking through campus this spring, he said he was pleasantly surprised to see a flyer on campus for Rising Scholars.

“I came across a paper on the wall and it said, ‘Rising Scholars — formerly incarcerated,’ and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s me,’ and I got interested,” Diaz said. “I wish there would have been a program like this when I was younger when I was locked up, maybe that would have prevented me from going to prison.”

Diaz got a 3.9 GPA during the spring semester. For the fall, in addition to his 15 units of courses, he’ll be working as a student assistant with the college’s Outreach and Recruitment office. He said the Rising Scholars club is still in the early stages of planning what it will focus on, but he’s looking forward to building relationships with local youth.

“After being in a cell, watching TV or reading, I just want to stay busy now,” he said.

Yefry Samael Mata Diaz is the new student trustee at Cabrillo College.
Yefry Samael Mata Diaz is the new student trustee at Cabrillo College and a member of the Rising Scholars club, which supports students affected by the justice system.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

For Bobi J., the Rising Scholars lessons turned out to be a welcome alternative to daily life in the jail. “It broke the routine — the mundane, heartless day,” he said. “We weren’t treated like inmates, we were students. It was a sense of normalcy.”

He attended three classes while at Rountree this past spring. The courses were Monday to Friday for six weeks, from 10 to 11:30 a.m. He said the classes were refreshing. He attended lectures and had to complete homework assignments.

He finished the courses in May, and because Rountree students get “milestone credits,” meaning that when they attend courses they can get released sooner, he got out two weeks early.

While the courses he took are non-credit for his transcript, Bobi said the instructors and the courses helped him explore a new career pathway: computer science. He’s enrolled in computer science courses for the fall at Cabrillo and plans to transfer to UC Santa Cruz once he finishes his requirements. Previously, he did taste-testing for 25 years for companies including Pillsbury and General Foods.

He also plans to get involved in the Rising Scholars club as a way to give back to the community, citing how much he appreciates that course instructor Kenner gave her time to teach at Rountree. Bobi emphasizes that just knowing that the Rising Scholars staff are there for participants is enough to keep him motivated.

“These are people who want to make a difference,” he said. “These are people who are coming out when the rest of society has forgotten us.”

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