Image: Hector Cervantes (second from the right) and Underground Scholars staff accompanying UCI students on their legislative visit to Sacramento in 2022.
In 2018, Hector Cervantes launched the Underground Scholars Initiative at the University of California, Irvine (USI at UCI), a student-led organization dedicated to serving students directly and indirectly impacted by the California carceral system. An extension of the Underground Scholars Initiative founded at the University of California, Berkeley in 2013, USI at UCI aims to create safe spaces, provide targeted support services, and foster a sense of community to support formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students on campus.
USI at UCI was born from a chance meeting Hector had with a Berkeley student while interning in Washington, D.C. Hector explains that they connected over their shared experience of making it to college as a formerly incarcerated student. When he mentioned receiving support from Berkeley Underground Scholars, Hector was immediately intrigued.
“I remember being really surprised when I learned about Underground Scholars for the first time,” Hector recalls. “Up until that point, I had never shared my background with anyone on campus, and I never thought that there would be an appropriate environment to do this. But when I got back home, the student reached out and asked if I wanted to establish a chapter of the Underground Scholars Initiative at UCI. I said yes because I wanted to identify with other students like me, and that was the start of everything.”
Along with a small group of other formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students,
Hector devoted the rest of his undergraduate and graduate career to getting USI at UCI off the ground. Thanks to his hard work, the student organization was successful in its mission of empowering and encouraging the growth of other students affected by the carceral system. Three years later in Fall of 2021, Hector was given the opportunity to continue his work as Director of the UCI Underground Scholars Program, a new unit backed by the UCI Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE) and UCI School of Law.
“We are thrilled to partner with the UCI Underground Scholars Program,” says Michael Dennin, Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning and Dean of Undergraduate Education. “Establishing this program is an important step in supporting UCI’s diverse undergraduate population and ensuring that we create inclusive and welcoming communities for all students on campus.”
With the support from the DUE and UCI School of Law, the Underground Scholars Program is designed to align with USI at UCI and operate according to three central pillars: recruitment, retention, and advocacy.
The Underground Scholars Program oversees several programs designed to transition formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students to UCI. For instance, the Incarcerated Scholars Program focuses on outreach and support for incarcerated individuals to help them begin the transfer process to college or university following their release. The Incarcerated Scholars Program provides services like transcript analysis, education plan development, and academic advising to help incarcerated individuals begin working towards a degree and navigate the process of transferring their credits to a four-year institution. Hector adds that the first student admitted to UCI through this program will join the incoming class of 2022.
The Underground Scholars Program also oversees a program dedicated to assisting formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students enrolled in community colleges in transitioning to UCI. Through campus visits, transfer workshops, and partnerships with undergraduate admissions offices, the program assists students with their applications and other transfer requirements to improve their chances of being accepted to UCI.
The Underground Scholars Program also offers several services and resources to help students thrive at UCI. According to Hector, USI at UCI serves as the most significant retention initiative. He explains, “USI at UCI hosts weekly meetings where students come together to check in and see how everyone is doing. These meetings allow our students to build community in a safe space while also allowing us to identify any areas where we can step in and offer support.”
Through USI at UCI, students can access free support services such as tutoring, academic advising, peer coaching, and opportunities for scholarships, professional development, and employment.
In addition to USI at UCI’s weekly meetings and regular support services, the Underground Scholars Program hosts events throughout the year to bring the community together, provide special resources, and generate awareness. For instance, during the 2021-22 academic year, the Underground Scholars Program hosted an expungement clinic in partnership with the UCI School of Law to offer students free legal advice and help with removing convictions from their criminal records. The program also hosted a special screening of the documentary The Feminist on Cellblock Y followed by a discussion panel and Q&A session with several of the individuals featured in the film. Open to the entire UCI community, this event offered students, faculty, and staff a new perspective on inmate education programs and dispelled some of the common misconceptions about what it’s like to pursue academic advancement behind bars.
Finally, the Underground Scholars Program participates in several initiatives to advocate for students at UCI as well as for those across the state. On UCI’s campus, the Underground Scholars Program advocates for formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students by spreading awareness for this population and working to eliminate negative stereotypes.
“We’re really focused on educating the UCI community about mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex,” says Hector. “One of our central goals is to provide the necessary context and background knowledge to really change the way that people view so-called criminals.”
On a wider scale, the program is also involved in the statewide Underground Scholars Fellowship, in which each Underground Scholars chapter from across the UC system sends one student to represent their campus. Together, this cohort of student leaders engages in legislative advocacy to remove barriers and create opportunities for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students. For 2022, the group is advocating for ongoing funding for the statewide Underground Scholars network from the state legislature.
In July 2022, the Underground Scholars Program also hosted the first-ever Prison to University Conference: ALIGN-Ed (Arming Leaders Inspiring Growth & Networking in Higher Education). The goal of this conference was to strengthen the prison-to-university pipeline and streamline student academic advancement. Featuring representatives from the Rising Scholars Network (California Community Colleges), Project Rebound (California State University), and Underground Scholars (University of California), this conference looked to improve collaboration between the major practitioner networks serving formerly incarcerated students.
Looking to the Future
While the Underground Scholars Program has accomplished so much since Fall of 2021, Hector has much more in store. For instance, he is currently in the process of establishing a cross-enrollment program to allow incarcerated students to enroll in online UCI courses. He explains:
“I’m working with OC Juvenile Hall, the Orange County Department of Education, and a few UCI departments to make a set of UCI courses available to incarcerated youth at Orange County Juvenile Hall. And this is really just the starting point; I hope to expand this program to surrounding community colleges to include formerly incarcerated students who are interested in transferring to UCI. These students would get the opportunity to come to campus, take classes, and really experience what life at UCI is like.”
Hector also has plans to establish an ambassador/peer mentorship program where students involved in the Underground Scholars Program will promote the program and its services to incoming students. He hopes that this program will help newly-admitted students feel welcomed and supported as they adjust to life at UCI.
With the Underground Scholars Program welcoming its first official cohort of five undergraduate and two Ph.D. students in Fall 2022, Vice Provost Dennin is excited to see the program grow under Hector’s leadership:
“The Underground Scholars Program is truly a testament to Hector’s hard work and passion. This program has already touched the lives of so many students, and I’m confident it will continue to make a lasting difference as it expands access to the opportunities afforded by a UCI education.”
Even as he looks toward the future of the Underground Scholars Program and all he hopes to accomplish, Hector can’t help but stop and marvel at how far he and the program have come:
“When we first started meeting as students, all we wanted was to create a community and have a home on campus. I never envisioned that I would get to a position where I was able to make a real impact for folks who share my background. I want to give back because I was once in their shoes. I feel privileged to serve these students and help increase access to a prestigious institution like the University of California because I know first-hand how valuable UCI was for me.”
Visit the UCI Underground Scholars Program website or contact Hector at email@example.com to learn more about the program. Visit the USI at UCI website to learn more about the student organization. For the latest updates from the Underground Scholars Program and USI at UCI, follow them on Facebook and Twitter.