Outside ChanceBy Gina Piccalo
After years in and around the criminal justice system, students find that their best hope for staying off the streets and in school is to get support, especially from other students who are making the same transition.
He’s a community college counselor who specializes in students more conventionally known as “lost causes.” They come from the streets, from drug addiction, from juvenile halls, and prisons. And, like Noel Gomez, Ed.M.’06, their lives started in poverty in communities that share more in common with war-torn developing nations than most people’s notions of America. Some of them are one strike shy of life in prison. Others have never known an adult life outside the criminal justice system. College was the last place any of them expected to end up.
Yet there they were on a cloudless day in January in a conference room with the hint of an ocean view on the campus of Santa Barbara City College (SBCC), swapping heartbreaking stories but still laughing, still inspired to move forward. Gomez is one of the key reasons these people showed up at all. A native of Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles, he grew up in the gang capital of America in the turbulent early 1990s. His cousins were members of one of largest, most powerful gangs in the region. But Gomez, 26, had to cross two turfs to get to school.
“If I’d pled allegiance to any of these gangs, I would have been dead in two or three days,” he says.
So he stayed out, got through high school, and against the advice of a school counselor, applied — and got accepted — to the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“I just wanted to get out,” he says, wiping away the tears, “but at the same time, solve all these problems.”
He can still hardly believe he got into Harvard, let alone graduated with a master’s. But Gomez’s journey is what inspired these students to take what for them was a terrifying leap of faith and join SBCC’s six-week summer program called Transitions.
There, Gomez and others teach them how to navigate the campus, how to write essays, and read a syllabus, but also how to build trust, how to stay out of trouble, how to believe in themselves.
“A lot of these students were individuals the school system failed years ago,” he says. So he doesn’t chide them if they slip back into their old habits, get arrested, or disappear. Instead, when they do show up, Gomez tells them, “As long as you’re still here, that’s all that matters.”
In its first two years, Transitions has proven a spectacular success. Nearly all the students who participated in the summer enrolled in the fall semester and about half continued into the spring. They say they come back for the relationships they forged and the extraordinary sense of achievement that every day on campus brings them. Most striking, though, is the fact that they all graduate from Transitions with more hope than any of them have known in their lives.
“I rely on this program like it’s my life,” says one of Gomez’s students, Tia Macias, a recovering addict now studying to be a drug and alcohol counselor. “It is my life.”
Transitions is modest as so-called “re-entry” programs go. But its success is an especially marked achievement for a population whose chances of returning to prison are staggeringly high. Of the 700,000 people released from U.S. prisons each year, two-thirds will be rearrested within three years. (The United States has the world’s highest prison population: 2.3 million. That’s a 500 percent increase over the last 30 years, despite a relatively stable crime rate.) The reasons why are myriad. This group is wrestling with substance abuse, posttraumatic stress disorder, poverty, and the lure of their old lives. Keeping them in college demands constant peer support, state and federal financial aid, an open-minded college board, and the willingness to let these students take three steps backward for every one they take forward. As Gomez admits, “It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be successful just because they’ve been through the program.”
It’s a big commitment on all sides. But as cash-strapped states seek to cut costs by reducing prison populations, it is heartening to know models like this one work.