Among a sea of graduates, six men in graduation caps and gowns wearing black and gold stoles walked across Cal State LA’s Commencement stage.
They posed, smiled, flexed and blew kisses to their loved ones in the audience, celebrating the completion of their degrees. But unlike their peers at the ceremony, these formerly incarcerated graduates began their collegiate journey more than 70 miles away from Cal State LA inside California State Prison, Los Angeles County in Lancaster.
The graduates were students in Cal State LA’s Prison B.A. Graduation Initiative, the first in-person bachelor’s degree completion program for incarcerated students in California. The program was started in 2016 with support from The Opportunity Institute’s Renewing Communities Initiative, President Barack Obama’s Second Chance Pell federal pilot program, and later the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Through the program at California State Prison in Lancaster, students earn a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, with a focus on organizational communication from the Department of Communication Studies in Cal State LA’s College of Arts and Letters. The program develops the students’ critical thinking, public speaking abilities, and writing skills and provides them with experiences that have fostered personal transformations.
“I’m feeling a sense of accomplishment, but truthfully, I feel like this is only the beginning,” said Risala Rose-Aminifu, one of the graduates who celebrated earning their degrees at the May 26 Commencement ceremony for the College of Arts and Letters, which took place during Cal State LA’s 75th anniversary. “Not only in education, but just in life in general, this is the first righteous positive first step to right my life.”
Rose-Aminifu and his fellow graduates are among the more than 35 students who have earned their bachelor’s degrees through the program. A total of 14 students from the program have been released from prison and are supported by Cal State LA’s Project Rebound, a program that assists formerly incarcerated individuals with re-entry and their continued education following their release.
Rose-Aminifu, Justin Hong, and Thaisan Nguon were released from prison and finished their coursework on the main Cal State LA campus in the fall. They had their Bachelor of Arts in Communication degrees conferred during the Commencement ceremony.
As he crossed the stage, Rose-Aminifu stretched his arms wide, soaking in the moment before blowing a kiss to his parents, cousin and girlfriend.
“I feel like I have another purpose, another calling that’s greater,” he said. “If I can help somebody else, that’s my whole mission.”
Samual Nathaniel Brown and Jason Keaton earned their bachelor’s degrees while incarcerated at California State Prison in Lancaster, and celebrated their accomplishment at a first-of-its-kind commencement ceremony within the prison in October. After being released, Cal State LA invited Brown and Keaton to participate in the on-campus ceremony with their fellow Golden Eagle graduates.
Keaton, who was released 66 days prior to the ceremony, shared how grateful he was for the fortunate timing.
“It means everything. It’s the cherry on top,” Keaton said. “The degree was a beautiful accomplishment, but to be able to partake in the celebration was perfect timing. To come home on time and participate in this celebration is definitely an honor.”
The founding leadership team of Cal State LA’s Prison B.A. Graduation Initiative included Executive Vice President Jose A. Gomez, Taffany Lim, executive director for the Center for Engagement, Service, and the Public Good, and Professor Bidhan Roy. Working in collaboration with the California State Prison in Lancaster, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the team created California’s first in-person B.A. program.
“It was powerful to see six more of our students walk across the main stage on Thursday,” Lim said. “They have worked incredibly hard to get to this place and it is hard not to be inspired by their journey. I know that each of them will go on to do great things in their future.”
Drawing on expertise from across the university, the initiative is a collaboration between the university’s Center for Engagement, Service, and the Public Good, the Department of Communication Studies in the College of Arts and Letters, and the College of Professional and Global Education.
Cal State LA soon plans to expand the prison education initiative by establishing the state’s first in-person bachelor’s degree completion program for incarcerated women. The program, which is expected to begin in fall 2022, will be based at the California Institute for Women in Chino in partnership with Chaffey College. The lessons learned from the program at California State Prison in Lancaster will inform the new program in liberal studies being created for women.
Jeff Stein was one of the first graduates of Cal State LA’s Prison B.A. Graduation Initiative, earning his degree in fall 2020 and walking across the stage at Commencement in July 2021. After completing his undergraduate degree, he continued his studies at Cal State LA, enrolling in the Master of Arts in Communication Studies program.
In his conversations with professors, Stein realized the great need for effective communicators and workers with problem solving skills, which motivated him to pursue the master’s degree. Stein saw the opportunity as a way to make sense of the world around him, while assuming a position to teach others and make a difference.
“For me, it’s the pinnacle,” Stein said of crossing the Commencement stage for a second time, this time in recognition of earning a master’s degree. He plans to teach, support Project Rebound, and “lend my skills and passion to projects that improve community wellness, starting with marginalized people first.”
In his Commencement address, Cal State LA President William A. Covino shared words of reflection and encouragement with the graduates. His words recognized the difficult and rewarding journey they all took to get there—no matter where they started.
“What you’ve learned and your experiences with friends and faculty have changed you,” President Covino said. “Your capacity to shape your own destiny and to have a positive impact on the life of your family and on your community has multiplied. As I look out at all of you, I know there is no limit to what you will do in the world. That’s what it means to be a Golden Eagle.”
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California State University, Los Angeles is the premier comprehensive public university in the heart of Los Angeles. Cal State LA is ranked number one in the United States for the upward mobility of its students. Cal State LA is dedicated to engagement, service, and the public good, offering nationally recognized programs in science, the arts, business, criminal justice, engineering, nursing, education, and the humanities. Founded in 1947, the University serves more than 26,000 students and has more than 250,000 distinguished alumni.
Cal State LA is home to the critically-acclaimed Luckman Fine Arts Complex, Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center, Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility, Billie Jean King Sports Complex and the TV, Film and Media Center. For more information, visit www.CalStateLA.edu.