Back in 2013, a group of visionaries identified the need to establish a student organization with the sole focus of supporting formerly incarcerated and system impacted students in the University of California (UC) system. Originating at UC Berkeley, the Underground Scholars Initiative (USI) quickly expanded to UC Los Angeles (UCLA); in the subsequent years, UC Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Davis, Merced, and Irvine also established their own USI chapters. Each USI chapter helps break systemic barriers by supporting college completion; in fact, the Prison Policy Initiative found that formerly incarcerated individuals are eight times less likely to complete college than the general public—a statistic that USI is changing one member at a time. 

While nine UC campuses have demonstrated their commitment to students impacted by the justice system, the University of California, Irvine, has taken a multi-faceted approach. In 2020, supported by a Michelson Spark Grant, UCI LIFTED launched what will be the first four-year UC bachelor’s degree program in a California prison beginning in fall 2022. By partnering with Southwestern College (SWC), LIFTED will provide an opportunity for currently enrolled students at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility to transfer into UCI after completing their SWC A.A. coursework. 

In addition to offering the first four-year UC degree to incarcerated students, UCI is one of three UC campuses to have a full-time Director of Underground Scholars to support the formerly incarcerated student body. Through a 2021 Michelson Spark Grant, UCI will expand the resources USI can offer students by hiring an Outreach Coordinator and Retention Coordinator while also participating in a statewide, year-long Underground Scholars Policy Fellowship Program. Together, the two full-time hires and the Fellows will work to provide much-needed recruitment and retention services, in addition to raising awareness of the impact of the program to state policymakers. 

More specifically, working with community colleges and re-entry programs, the Outreach Coordinator will help incarcerated students and formerly incarcerated students navigate the transfer process. At the same time, the Retention Coordinator will provide tutoring services, technological support, application support, resources to meet basic needs, and more as formerly incarcerated students complete UC degrees. Additionally, the Retention Coordinator will work with UCI LIFTED to assist recently released students as they transition onto campus and potentially pursue a graduate degree. Finally, the year-long Policy Fellowship will train students in state and system policy activity. 

By serving currently incarcerated individuals through UCI LIFTED and while also bolstering the UCI’s capability to serve formerly incarcerated students via Underground Scholars, UC Irvine is setting the standard for the future of smart justice. We look forward to supporting UCI in their efforts to help additional students transfer into the school, while also facilitating the retention of existing justice-impacted students through the expansion of the Underground Scholars Initiative. 

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation seeking to accelerate progress towards a more just world through grantmaking, operating programs, and impact investing. Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.

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