At 11 years old, Irene Sotelo was reeled into street life involving drug abuse and gang affiliation after her mother committed suicide.
Due to the sudden hardship, Sotelo began to use hard drugs such as angel dust, a dissociative drug that causes hallucinations and false reality.
While also feeling angry and confused about her mother’s suicide, Sotelo battled her own trauma while helping her grandparents care for her younger siblings, and dropped out of seventh grade.
“I’m the oldest of five children, I had to help take care of the children so there was no time for school,” Sotelo said. “I had a lot of trauma and was using the hardest drugs like PCP and LSD.”
At 18 years old, Sotelo left street life and became clean from drug use when she married her ex-husband.
“Even though it wasn’t a perfect [lifestyle], I enjoyed being a homemaker,” she said.
In 1998, Sotelo was diagnosed with cancer and was given medication for her treatment by medical professionals.
She survived cancer, but then became addicted to her prescription pills which also led to meth addiction and becoming homeless on the streets of Los Angeles.
“I was one of the worst ones out there, always high,” Sotelo said. “I left my home of 19 years, my husband and kids, to go out there and choose the drug.”
Later on, Sotelo was sent to prison and charged with drug transportation and credit card fraud.
“I hit rock bottom,” she said. “My freedom was taken from me when I got sent to prison, but it changed my life.”
After 18 months in prison, Sotelo became sober and recovered from the traumatic effects drug use had on her body.
“I got to do a substance abuse program in prison, and that taught me my triggers,” she said. “In the county, you go in there for a couple of months then get out and you want to go get high, but the day I went to prison was when I stopped.”
Upon release from prison, in 2009, Sotelo had no work history and now had a felony on her record.
“When I got out there, I was disabled, with no work history, and now with a felony, I thought, ‘Who’s going to hire me?'” she said. “The chances of me getting a job were not good.”
Due to the after-effects from a stroke Sotelo experienced, she was unable to work and decided to enroll at Cerritos College.
From that moment, Sotelo worked her way through general education classes and achieved academic success by graduating with an associate’s in criminal justice with honors.
“It was amazing that I even got an [associate’s] from community college, or that I [even] went to college,” she said. “I did something positive, and that made me want to challenge myself again.”
After receiving her associate’s in criminal justice, Sotelo was accepted to Long Beach State to continue her studies.
During Sotelo’s time at CSULB, she founded the Rising Scholars program and “learned how to navigate the world of conferences and bureaucracy.”
Creating the program gave Sotelo her first experience helping other formerly incarcerated students, which turned into her life passion.
“The other two program founders graduated, and I did too, undergrad in 2018,” she said. “I got into the master’s program and that’s where I kept pushing for Project Rebound.”
Even though Rising Scholars helped create a sense of community for previously incarcerated students like Sotelo, it had limited access to resources.
“[Program] funding was the main roadblock until just last year, so that’s when Project Rebound became a line item in the state budget,” Sotelo said.
James Binnall, a CSULB criminology professor revealed to Sotelo’s class that he too was previously incarcerated.
“I took [Binnall’s] class my first semester, and later went up to him after school to tell him ‘I’m formerly incarcerated [too], how can I get to where you’re at [in education]?'” she said.
Due to their shared experiences, Binnall connected Sotelo with other formerly incarcerated students, Joe Louis Hernandez and Adrian Vasquez, and helped them create the Project Rebound on-campus organization in July 2020.
“If I would have left in 2018, I don’t know if the push for Project Rebound would have continued,” she said. ”I got into the master’s program and that is where I kept pushing and pushing, doing what I could.”
For Sotelo it was never about herself, it was about helping the formerly incarcerated population at CSULB.
“We needed the program here for the students who were lacking in this program,” she said. “I’m glad the school has the program now, and that’s all that matters to me.”
Now as a recent master’s graduate in social work, Sotelo works 12-hour days as the program coordinator helping students with counseling services such as picking their courses, laptop loans, and basic costs for career training.
“I make sure [students] check-in with me at least once a month, but I check in on some more often if they’re experiencing difficulties at home,” she said. “I also make sure they’re staying on track with school because I’ve had some students try to drop out due to being overwhelmed.”
Sotelo describes the Project Rebound program as a “tight-knit community,” while working alongside her longtime friend, Danny Murillo who is a CSULB graduate student and Project Rebound member.
“It’s an honor being here, going back to the neighborhood and telling people I work at a program that the homegirl runs,” he said. “I’m not only here to benefit from the resources Project Rebound offers, but to also contribute.”