When the Rising Scholars program began at Merced College in the spring semester of 2016, the mission was to remove as many obstacles as possible to assist currently and formerly incarcerated people to access and earn a college education.

After seven and a half years, largely under the leadership of professor and faculty coordinator Jennifer McBride, the Rising Scholars program at Merced College is a great success. The program has served 1,491 incarcerated students and awarded 212 associate degrees, transfer degrees and certificates.

The numbers are impressive considering the college started with three instructors at a single facility in 2016. It now boasts 33 faculty working at four facilities and guiding students along seven degree pathways: English, Communication Studies, History, Sociology, Psychology, Business Administration and Political Science.

“From the first semester I began teaching, I understood that what I was doing and what my colleagues were doing was transformative,” McBride said. “The way that power of education manifests itself is clear and almost immediate for the students.”

Rising Scholars has programs operating on 73 of 116 community college campuses in California, in partnership with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO).

Merced College’s Rising Scholars program works with incarcerated individuals at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and Valley State Prison (VSP) in Chowchilla, Juvenile Justice Correctional Complex at Sandy Mush, and the United States Penitentiary (USP) Atwater. The program also provides support to justice-impacted individuals—those who have experienced incarceration, detention, conviction or arrest, etc.—who now attend classes at the college.

Because the Merced College program is young and no one is resting on their laurels, it is also very much a scalable one. For example, the program recently hired Michelle Greenwood to fill a newly created assistant director position.

“It’s amazing stuff to see,” Greenwood said. “I’m just so proud of this work because we get to see all of these students reaching their potential.”

The college and the CDCR have accomplished quite a bit for justice-impacted students over the past few years.

For example, the CDCR recently made a large financial commitment and executed an important technological upgrade when it gave every incarcerated college student a laptop, and then launched and gave them access to a Canvas shell. The CDCR rightly keeps a tight hold on internet access inside its facilities, but giving students access to Canvas—a learning management tool that is widely used in academia—is a crucial step to help justice-impacted students succeed and continue their education.

At USP in Atwater, high-level custody students have taken their courses over Zoom in recent years. This fall, those students will begin taking in-person classes, with the option to work toward an associate degree in Business Administration.

There is also untapped growth at juvenile hall. Those young students have been able to take online courses for years, but will have more chances to take dual enrollment courses, which give both high school and college credits, pending the approval of several grants, Greenwood said.

The Rising Scholars program offers tons of evidence as to how motivated formerly and currently incarcerated students become when given a shot to gain an education. The results of the CCCCO’s initial 3-year report card on Rising Scholars from 2019 even showed that people who are educated while in prison succeed at a higher rate than students on campus.

Amando Sanders provides a great example of the quality of motivation that can be unleashed. He earned associate degrees in Psychology and Sociology, as well as a General Education Transfer Completion Certificate, all while housed at VSP.

Sanders, 42, was released from VSP in time to walk in Merced College’s graduation ceremony in May. He is currently studying to become a certified medical peer support mentor to work with other formerly incarcerated individuals. He then heads to CSU San Bernardino in the fall, where he’ll study sociology in hopes of becoming a drug and alcohol abuse addiction counselor.

“Putting in that effort showed me that education has always been the key to enlightenment and looking at the world differently,” Sanders said. “I can also now give back to other inmates. I’ve motivated guys to go to high school and college because they saw me doing it. I want to show them that if I can do it, they can, too.”

In perhaps the most exciting development, currently incarcerated students now have their own pathway to build on their associate degrees. Since 2021, associate degree holders from CCWF and VSP have been able to transfer into Fresno State to complete a bachelor’s degree in an interdisciplinary major that combines social sciences and humanities. There is a waiting list for the program, which currently serves 25 students.

Merced College is also smoothing out the process of getting transcripts. Any student who applies to a two-year school, a four-year school, a technical training program, or a scholarship—or to the state, to get time off of their sentences—needs a transcript. That simple piece of paper unlocks many doors, but currently or formerly incarcerated students must jump through hoops that can feel daunting, like having access to the internet to make a request and then having the cash to pay for it.

“They don’t always know what they’re supposed to ask for, and from whom, and where to send a transcript,” Greenwood said. “The access piece is so challenging for them. We help them understand all of that. We want them to be ready to transfer.”

Incarceration rates and crime rates in the U.S. have steadily declined since 2008, but what remains is how people are ostracized, socially and professionally, after serving time.

Education is the best way for justice-impacted students to open doors to economic mobility and social acceptance. So the Rising Scholars team at Merced College, and others like them, will never stop pushing for more faculty, funding and access for justice-impacted students.

For the Fall 2023 semester, Merced College has hired dedicated Rising Scholars faculty in history, psychology, and communications, as well as a full-time dedicated counselor.

Another way to advance the mission of rehabilitation through education is to recruit successful Rising Scholars students to share their experiences. One peer mentor is Tarence McCullough, who served time at VSP years ago, and then went on to serve as the Student Trustee on the Merced Community College Board of Trustees for 2021-22.

McCullough, 53, supports his peers and recruits Rising Scholars program alumni to serve as peer mentors. In December, he’ll graduate with an AA in Social & Behavioral Sciences.

“It’s when you come home that you need the support,” said McCullough. “It’s the key to staying out. … If you’re someone with a past, getting an education shows that you have already decided to change.”