Leveraging inspiring futures

LIFTED graduation

Scenes from the inaugural UC Irvine LIFTED graduation. Photos by Steve Zylius. Video by UCI’s Office of the Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning.

UCI Ceremony celebrates 23 graduates of first UC in-prison bachelor’s program

By Mimi Ko Cruz and Heather Ashbach

Despite facing life in prison without the possibility of parole, Sergio Guil found hope in higher education. 

“Today marks a significant milestone in our lives,” Guil, the UC Irvine student commencement speaker, said during the inaugural LIFTED (Leveraging Inspiring Futures Through Educational Degrees) graduation June 20 from inside the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility. “UC Irvine has transformed our lives. It’s been an inspiration to make something of ourselves so we can give back to society.”

Thanks to LIFTED, the 54-year-old international sociology honor society inductee added, “I was able to turn to the world of academia as a way of finding meaning in my life.”

Guil’s remarks punctuated the first of two speeches delivered by graduates of the first LIFTED cohort and a multiyear collaborative effort by UCI and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Launched in 2020, LIFTED is the first in-prison bachelor’s degree program offered by the University of California system. 

The power of education

When Guil arrived in the U.S., he had $5 in his pocket. He had no place to live, yet he had high aspirations for a successful life. However, a series of wrong turns and an illicit lifestyle landed him in prison 28 years ago. 

After spending much time reflecting, he found a better path. 

He learned English, became an avid prison library patron, learned American Sign Language, took part in mentorship programs and began helping his peers understand the value of higher education.

“I honestly believe that if more people could read, write, and comprehend on a meaningful level, we would be closer to a world where issues of religious intolerance and closed mindedness are no longer some of our most defining traits,” he said. “I chose to increase my knowledge in order to be of service to my peers, not as a means of gaining accolades. These choices have led me to see that higher education is a transformative power, which provides us with the opportunity to help others as well as ourselves as we work together, to build lasting communities to help those who come after us.”

With his bachelor’s degree in hand, Guil soon will begin pursuing his master’s degree in humanities from Cal State Dominguez Hills.

“I discovered the power of education,” he said, echoing the thoughts of his 22 fellow graduates. “Education instills hope. It’s a meaningful experience for us and for our families. We’ve learned about social issues, about ourselves and about the world. I am overwhelmed with gratitude.”

Kelly McLeod, fellow Alpha Kappa Delta honors society inductee and the second student commencement speaker, agreed.

“Through education, I found myself. I’m not the broken kid who came to prison at 19,” said McLeod, now 37, who graduated summa cum laude, academic recognition which places him and two other LIFTED students among the top 2 percent of UCI’s entire graduating class. “Sometimes all a person needs is a chance. LIFTED gave us that chance.”

Indeed, said Jemal Bernard, also an international sociology honor society inductee, alongside his mother Janet Bernard, a retired public school administrator.

“This program has been life-changing,” Jemal Bernard said, adding that he did it for his mom.

With tears of joy in her eyes, Janet Bernard said she is proud of her 53-year-old son, the oldest of four and the last to earn a bachelor’s degree. “Without education, you can lose hope and your soul. I always told my son not to give up hope and learning not only helped him gain knowledge and the ability to express his feelings, it gave him hope and saved his soul. This is a triumph for him and for me, too.”

In an essay submitted for the commencement program, LIFTED graduate Pete Madrigal, honors society inductee, wrote:

“Prisons can be places of intense brutality, violence, and dehumanization. However, Richard J. Donovan Echo Yard is an exception to the rule; we have proven here at Echo Yard that we are more than prisoners. We are students who are worth redeeming. Nothing can stop us now. There are no social benefits to us remaining illiterate. Statistics demonstrate that most of the incarcerated will eventually be released back into society. It makes sense that we continue to figure out ways to get higher education into more prisons. For instance, people in prisons, who are participating in college education are least likely to recidivate and most likely to be employed after incarceration. It is also widely agreed that higher education can both prevent criminal legal involvement, as well as support those with criminal backgrounds to transform their futures. We want to dedicate this sociology degree to all those who never had the opportunity to reach higher education, especially minorities who were historically denied an equal education. I ask my fellow colleagues to never give up on their dreams. We owe this degree to ourselves and all those who never gave up on us. Also, we would like to let society know that we are trying to be better people than what we were prior to incarceration.”

Additionally, each graduate submitted a statement highlighting how LIFTED and the degree it represents has impacted their lives. The following are a few excerpts:

Jermaine Dean: “Education has helped me discover the type of person I truly am, in addition to the person I want to become. Having this new perspective on the world allowed me to increase my understanding, gain insight, and take accountability for my actions. Education has rewarded me with freedom. The ability to look beyond my environment and know that consequences do not have to mean finality.”

John Winkelman: “The University of California, Irvine has transformed my life. …  I am a UC Irvine graduate on the precipice of applying for a Ph.D. program at UC Irvine in Criminology, Law & Society. I believe that people who are closest to the problem are often closest to the solution, and today I choose to be part of the solution.”

Kevin Woodruff: “For most of my life, I had the label of gang member; now I have a new label that I and my family can be proud of: college graduate.”

Albert Ybarra: “This experience has helped me realize that LIFTED wasn’t so much a dream come true but rather a blessing that I didn’t know I needed. Gone are the days of blaming others for my position in life. Today, I understand that I have the power to create the future that I deserve. I owe this paradigm shift to the stewards of education, specifically the UC Irvine professors who challenged my outlook on life, for it was their use of compassion, patience, accountability, and encouragement that has successfully reintegrated me back into the ranks of humanity.” 

Cedric Parker: “This journey taught me that I had a lot to learn. I appreciate all the professors and classmates who helped me through many challenges. Today, I am a critical thinker who understands that having others’ best interest is having my own best interest. I will use this B.A. to pursue a career path in counseling and rehabilitative reentry advocacy work.”

Richard Tovar: “I never could have imagined that this opportunity would empower me to break free from my prior limitations of incarceration to strive for a better future.”

Babak Gilani: “This program has been the greatest experience, as it has led me to my purpose and changed the course of my life. My dream is to combine my lived experience with empirically grounded academic research to inform policymakers of the benefits of restorative justice practices. I believe in this program, and the power of higher education, with every fiber of my being. We are planting the seeds of intergenerational change!”

Alfonso Waldemar Matas: “My educational journey began at almost 50 years old. I held doubts that after 25 years out of school, I would succeed where once I failed in my youth. Today, I lay my doubts to rest.” 

Inspiring educators

In his remarks at the commencement ceremony, UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman said he “had the special privilege of teaching – and learning from” the LIFTED students. 

“Doing so reminded me of why I became an educator and thereafter a higher education administrator: It really is an honor to be in the business of teaching and learning,” he told the 23 graduates, their professors, friends, families and other guests in attendance. “In marking today’s graduation at RJD, we give new meaning to UC’s commitment that ‘anyone from anywhere’ can earn a BA from one of the finest universities in the country, if not the world. Today’s graduation is the first class of incarcerated students to earn a BA from UC, but not the last. We will be back next year to celebrate the graduating class of 2025 and, thereafter, for many more years to come.”

The graduates’ educational trajectories have had unexpected positive effects on their teachers and loved ones as well. 

In an editorial published last week in The San Diego Untion-Tribune, LIFTED director Keramet Reiter and LIFTED program officer Jennifer Gomez wrote: “One of our students got married after he enrolled in UCI’s LIFTED. Inspired by her incarcerated husband’s commitment to a college education, that student’s new wife enrolled in her local community college. Our incarcerated students have told us about children, nieces, nephews, spouses, and even parents, being inspired to re-engage with higher education, motivated by the educational successes of their incarcerated loved ones. While we knew about the robust evidence documenting the individual benefits of college education for incarcerated people, we never imagined the scale of the impact the education might have on their families. … Our students, over the course of a few quarters at UC Irvine, started examining past traumas from different angles. They now re-frame their earlier failures as sources of insight, empathy and resilience. Their lived experience has become data in research papers; inspiration for plays, poems, and artwork; and justification for advocacy work. To our surprise, they have transformed their past struggles into personal superpowers.”

Through UCI LIFTED, incarcerated individuals who earn an A.A. in sociology from Southwestern College are eligible for admission. All LIFTED students must meet the same admission requirements as other UC transfer students, and they must meet the same graduation requirements, as well, in order to receive their degrees.

“At least 95 percent of people in California prisons will return to their communities, including many whose life sentences are being reduced with sentencing changes, and most will lack the tools to compete in today’s job market,” Reiter said. “Educational programs are a reallocation of the funds already being spent in the penal system and achieve much more successful reintegration objectives. Lower recidivism means less crime and improved long-term public safety.”

Education provides those who are released from prison a chance to make positive changes in their lives and society, she added. “And, for those who remain incarcerated, someone with a bachelor’s degree is better equipped to function and contribute, even while constrained by prison walls.”

Creating positive change

The program’s first cohort began taking UCI-led courses in fall 2022 at the San Diego prison. For two years, faculty from the schools of social ecology, social sciences, arts, business, humanities, law, education, and engineering committed to teaching quarter-long, in-person courses on topics ranging from politics, law and society to philosophy, literature and science. 

“The LIFTED students are exceptionally well-positioned to comprehend the significance of sociology,” said David John Frank, UCI sociology professor and department chair. “Their lives are shaped dramatically by social institutions and inequalities. Their motivations are thus personal, and their perspectives are unique.”

The same year students began their studies, the state of California, through an agreement between Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature, allocated $1.8 million over five years for the program’s support and expansion. Additional funding allowed LIFTED to admit another cohort in 2023 and with another planned to begin their studies in fall 2024. 

“California is transforming its criminal justice system to focus on true rehabilitation, justice, and safer communities statewide — known as the California Model,” said CDCR Secretary Jeff Macomber. “This collaboration with the University of California allows these graduates to build a foundation focused on pursuing educational opportunities that will prepare them for a successful future, while making our communities safer.

California Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris, who championed the funding, spoke at the graduation, sharing why the program means so much to her.

“I have a brother, who is 38 years old,” she said. “He was incarcerated for the first time when he was 21 years old, has been in and out of prison throughout his adult life and was most recently released two years ago. Two months ago, he enrolled in a community college program, and he too, I hope and pray, is beginning a new and vibrant chapter in his life. I am proud of him, and I am incredibly proud of you. Looking ahead, I am confident that you will continue to grow and evolve and serve as a beacon of hope and opportunity for students. You have shown tremendous, tremendous grit, courage, and resilience and I know that we're all proud of you today. We're also incredibly inspired by you.”. 

With their completion of all academic requirements, the students of UCI LIFTED’s inaugural cohort were awarded their bachelor’s degrees in sociology at the June 20 ceremony in front of invited family, friends, faculty, staff and supporters. In addition to three summa cum laude Latin honors graduates, six earned cum laude honors, a recognition granted to students who finished among the top 4 percent of UCI’s graduating class. Of the 23 graduates, 21 were inducted into the International Sociology Honors Society, and two students received campuswide writing awards for their senior capstone projects. In addition, three were inducted into the School of Social Sciences Order of the Merit, and two won School of Social Sciences writing awards.

The students at Richard J. Donovan didn’t just survive in the program — they thrived. And, the experience was equally fulfilling for those who taught within it.

“Teaching for LIFTED uplifts me,” said Frank. “It reignites my passion for the field.” 

Remarking on the day’s ceremony, Bill Maurer, dean of UCI’s School of Social Sciences, said: “In a remarkable day, the most poignant moment was after the pomp and circumstance and all the photo shoots, when the graduates removed their academic regalia, returned their robes to a cardboard box, and once again all appeared in their standard uniforms — looking the same as when they had come into the room, yet transformed into graduates of the best public university on the planet. They stand now as living testimony of the power of public higher education.”

For Guil, the ceremony, culminating the years of work he put in to call himself a college graduate, marked a new beginning point. 

“We have gained a greater understanding of ourselves, the world and how we fit as prosocial individuals. … I am hopeful that the days of draconic mass incarceration will one day become a tragic thing of the past, and that the prison system will grow into the culture suggested by CDCR, our new model, ‘today's offenders, tomorrow's neighbor,’” he said. 

“Today, we have established a precedent in the annals of academic history,” Guil added. “With perseverance and hard work, we can break the stereotypical bonds which have kept us shackled to the past. This part of our journey together may have reached its destination, but our impact on the world to fill it with the light of the knowledge that we have received is just beginning.”

LIFTED was created by UCI steering committee members Reiter; Pavan Kadandale, associate professor of teaching in molecular biology and biochemistry; Valerie Jenness, Distinguished Professor of criminology, law and society; and Carroll Seron, professor emerita of criminology, law and society. Members of UCI’s Underground Scholars Initiative – a group of formerly incarcerated students and their allies – serve on LIFTED’s campus advisory committee.

The full ceremony is available on Vimeo.

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