Irene Sotelo was sitting in one of her first classes within the Department of Criminal Justice at Long Beach State when her professor, James Binnall, asked his students what they thought about someone who had been to prison.
Sotelo’s peers answered with mixed responses, some saying that individuals who had been incarcerated could be rehabilitated, while others said that they did not know anyone who had.
Then, Binnall spoke up.
”Now you know one,” Binnall said. “I’m formerly incarcerated.”
Those seven words shocked Sotelo, as she was formerly incarcerated too. Yet there he stood, a professor at CSULB.
“If he could do it with a felony, I could start something for me,” Sotelo said.
And she did.
The now third-year graduate student had been invited by Binnall back in 2016 to sit down with Joe Louis Hernandez and Adrian Vasquez about creating an organization to support formerly incarcerated and system impacted students. That’s when Rising Scholars was founded, their name an ode to the obstacles these students had to arise from.
Rising Scholar’s work had just begun though.
According to Binnall, the organization first had to identify if there was a population in need of this program. Rising Scholars also had to gain support from the CSULB administration.
In the past four years, Rising Scholars has traveled across the country to promote that education can be a key to successful reentry to everyday life from prison. They created educational labs to work with formerly incarcerated or system impacted individuals in need of guidance or resources as they seek higher education.
Sotelo found that these individuals often feel too old for higher education or that it is too late for them. Even if they wish to pursue a degree, many are misinformed and believe that they could not enter certain majors or qualify for financial aid because of their conviction.
Despite the misconceptions about higher education, Binnall explained that one of the biggest inhibitors formerly incarcerated students faced was an emotional one.
“There’s a discomfort sometimes depending on how long ago someone was released from prison or jail and even if it has been a while back there’s a stigma that folks carry around with them and sometimes [it’s] self-inflicted,” Binnall said. “The idea is you’ve been told throughout the system maybe you weren’t worth as much as the next person or anything, at some point. So it’s kind of shedding that idea that you don’t have value.”
Rising Scholars laid the groundwork to bring Project Rebound, a state-wide organization that helps formerly incarcerated students navigate higher education, to CSULB. It was officially granted a chapter in July.
It was an exciting step for Binnall, Sotelo and everyone involved with Rising Scholars, who often saw themselves working with and as Project Rebound in an unofficial capacity. Now, Project Rebound can continue to work alongside Rising Scholars while furthering their reach with the help of state-funding and employment opportunities within the organization.
“We’re still the same people,” Sotelo said as she explained how both organizations will have the same meetings and events.
One key to the success for both organizations is visibility and support from the Long Beach community.
“We are catching a lot of interest from students who aren’t system involved,” Anais Lopez said. “We are educating people on this. It’s across all majors.”
Lopez, a first-year graduate student in criminal justice has been part of Rising Scholars since 2018. She said that students do not think about the fact that their classmates could be formerly incarcerated.
But a student could be, and without resources like Rising Scholars and Project Rebound, trying to navigate how to disclose your conviction, how to deal with the stigma surrounding it and readjust to your life can be overwhelming.
“Those obstacles can become insurmountable if there isn’t some support on campus,” Binnall said. “[Project Rebound and Rising Scholars] makes campuses more accepting. I think a campus can be welcoming but this sort of puts the official stamp on it.”