Starting at UC Berkeley in 2013, the Underground Scholars Initiative (USI) has swept across the UCs, creating a support system for previously incarcerated and system impacted students. The UC Santa Cruz chapter, the Underground Scholars Program (USP), began operations this fall. 

A UC systemwide initiative, USI provides programming around self-care, counselling support, financial literacy, internship and job opportunities, and a community of individuals from diverse backgrounds that members can rely on after graduation. 

“Having [an] exposure to a diversity of people and things really helps people to put in perspective and take control over their lives,” said core leadership team member and fourth-year UCSC transfer student Missy Hart. “[We encourage them to] take control over their lives, their stories, and help them in a way that’s going to be positive for themselves and everyone else around them.”

Mascots from universities involved in the Underground Scholars Initiative (USI) meet via Zoom.
Illustration by Isabel Tran.

Without the support and resources available through a USP, incarcerated individuals are eight times less likely to complete college than their peers, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Even if someone completes a GED certificate while incarcerated, less than 10 percent of those individuals go on to take any college coursework. USI chapters across the UC system hope to have all scholars graduate with their degree, and USP brings UCSC one step closer to this goal by providing resources and support.

“I see my role more as establishing that those funds were put to good use for 100 percent retention and graduation for our scholars,” third-year transfer student and USP Ambassador Daniel Davis said. “It’s a goal that we have set and I believe, as of last year, it was a realization that other USIs in the university system had realized.”

In order to get appropriate funding for a USI chapter, UCSC students partnered with the Renaissance Scholars Program along with Services for Transfer and Re-entry Students (STARS), both student support offices at UCSC. By reaching out to donors and working with the Renaissance Scholars to write grants, USI collected roughly $100,000 to fund the program over the past year.  

According to recent UCSC graduate and newly hired USP program coordinator Joshua Solis and Davis, the $100,000 raised by USI came from sources like CARES Act funding for the STARS office, donations and funding gifted by the UC Berkeley chapter.

“It was through the overwhelming support of STARS and Renaissance Scholars that allowed for Underground Scholars at UCSC to emerge as a support program for formerly incarcerated and system impacted students,” Solis said. “The funding that was allocated to Underground Scholars emphasizes their commitment in building capacity for supporting all of our students at STARS.”

With this funding, USP hired Solis as the program coordinator. His responsibilities include outreach and expansion of the program. However, without adequate funding, it will become increasingly difficult for USP to provide these services for students or offer small scholarships in the future.

With chapters at seven UC campuses, including UC Los Angeles, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Irvine, USI hopes to create a long-term support system for members and to give students a sense of belonging at universities where they may feel alienated. 

“We find that people that have been impacted by incarceration often don’t fit in with the crowd that is typically at a world-class university,” Davis said. “A sense of belonging is something that has to be cultivated through resources, community, and general acceptance.”