Saddleback College’s Rising Scholars branch is coming to light with resources and support for system-impacted and formerly incarcerated students

Saddleback College has created a branch within the Community College Rising Scholars Network of supporting system-impacted citizens in their academic studies. Courtesy of Kelly Crane

Students have access to many resources offered through Saddleback College including federal grant money instituted for the creation of the Rising Scholars program for system-impacted and formerly incarcerated students.

“There are reasons crime exists, there are reasons why 1 in 2 Americans knows someone or is related to someone who has been incarcerated,” said Ryan Monte, project specialist of Saddleback’s Rising Scholars, “It is because when put into the wrong situation and you make the wrong decision you can be there too.”

Saddleback received federal grant money for funding of the program in late fall to early spring 2023. In February Saddleback hired Liz Leguizamo as the academic counselor for Rising Scholars Saddleback branch in addition to Monte.

With the aid from Leguizamo and Monte, system-impacted students are gaining awareness of the support and resources they need in order to successfully transition into the educational system. Resources on campus include: lender laptops at the Learning Resource Center, free bus passes for students without transportation and numerous care needs available at the CARE corner.

Leguizamo personally wanted to thank the foundations office for being able to help with funding books for certain struggling Rising Scholars students without financial aid qualification. While extra financial aid is limited the effort for support and guidance is provided.

Issues on resources still arise especially on the needed discussion for housing resources that are more long term in order to prove a sense of stability for these students who are working toward their education goals.

“Housing is a great barrier that they are facing and still yet have to make their way to school and do all their classwork,” Leguizamo said.

Advocacy and awareness for system-impacted students is needed in understanding the challenges many have to go through in order to attend their courses. Which makes Monte’s position as a credible messenger in the program deeply influential and is able to efficiently encourage students to see a successful version of what could be them.

“When advice comes from someone like me who has been there and can say, ‘hey man I’m more free now than I have ever been and I’m more successful now than I’ve ever been,’ and just proving to myself that I can be a useful component of higher education,” Monte said, “It changed my life and it can change many others.”

Monte, after being formerly incarcerated, decided to switch gears and returned back to education in his thirties and enrolled at Saddleback to receive his associates degree in computer science. During his time at Saddleback Monte met Lumbreras who told him about the Underground Scholars program at University of California, Irvine, leading to the emergence of Saddleback’s own branch the Rising Scholars.  

Rising scholars are collaborating with faculty members, student services, as well as advertising within classrooms and school events on campus in order to recruit more students in need of support. 

“Just having this program alone students feel a part of the community, do feel welcomed and that they belong,” Leguizamo said, “Whole purpose and mission of this program is to close those educational gaps as well as within themselves.”

Currently in the works is a training program for faculty with hopes for a future to set up a Saddleback branch within the correctional facilities nearby in Orange County.

“What I really want to flush out in this academic year is having a physical presence in both the youth and even in the adult correctional facilities,” Monte said, “If we can catch them as they are leaving this revolving door of incarceration then we can really stop recidivism in its tracks.” 

According to a study done by Emory University, ex-offenders who complete some high school courses have recidivism rates of around 55 percent: While an associates degree drops the rate to 13.7 percent, bachelor’s degree reduces to 5.6 percent, and with a masters degree bring recidivism to virtually 0 percent.

In order to gain the necessary recruitment to emerge the Rising Scholars program the academic leaders have increased the baseline for Saddleback resources by offering specific workshops for system-impacted students.  

“Free expungement clinic event on April 4, 6-8pm in SSC 140 for students to discuss details and obtain DOJ records to assist in expungement of records, reduction of felonies, and the certificate of rehabilitation process,” according to Saddleback’s academic senate regular meeting on March 15, “All current students, staff, family of students and alumni are eligible.”

The expungement clinic recruited about 20 students into the program with it only growing since the more exposure the program is getting through efforts of recruitment.

“I was playing the wrong game when I was going in and out of incarnation I thought, ‘If I can be scarface or like these gangsters then I could get really good at this and stay out of prison but that’s not true,” Monte said, “I realized the only game I have to play is their game. If I can go to school and learn about technology, to be a thinker and someone who is using their imagination to shape the building blocks of the future, well then I’m winning at their game.”