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Op-ed: Resources for formerly incarcerated students should be more readily available

Formerly incarcerated students at UCLA aren’t given a fair chance, with a lack of resources preventing a smooth transition into the college life. An orientation program hosted by the Underground Scholars Initiative can kickstart them on a better path. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Ambar Hernandez

Oct. 8, 2019 11:39 p.m.

Let’s talk about marginalized, stigmatized and oppressed communities.

Just a guess, but previously incarcerated students at UCLA probably didn’t come to mind. These students comprise a community that continuously faces obstacles when attending and pursuing higher education at an institution like ours.

Students that fall under the terms “formerly incarcerated” and “system-impacted” have gone through correctional facilities as minors and have been accepted to institutions of higher education.

Formerly incarcerated students continue to endure the pressure of assimilating back into society. Meanwhile, the strong relationship between stigma and depression negatively affects their mental health. According to an article in the Journal of Correctional Education, these individuals often suffer bad self-esteem and depression. This, alongside the fact that most people in prison are people of color who have been historically marginalized, only adds to the list of barriers these students must overcome.

A 2015 research paper focused on incarcerated students in higher education said, “some of those dilemmas include lack of academic support, limited access to resources and lack of social support.” It is therefore essential for this community to be provided with financial and housing guidance, career mentorship, mental wellness services and academic resources to handle the mentally draining challenges of academic institutions.

The social transition to life outside of the system is already difficult, but with the added pressures of being a student at a top public university with no apparent support structures, it may become unbearable. It is important to provide more ways for this community to join support groups on campuses. The university must prove it cares about them and the adversities that negatively affect their mental health.

The resources that UCLA offers system-impacted students are few and far between. If individuals search for resources, they can find Counseling and Psychological Services, the CAPS Lending Library or the CAPS website – which all detail different mental illnesses or issues that students may be going through. But there is one glaring absence: a section dedicated to formerly incarcerated youth.

So even if these students have the wherewithal to search for resources to guide them, they can only find categories specifically marked out for others – nothing that is targeted toward their specific problems. Between classes, studying for exams and extracurriculars, it can be nearly impossible for any student to take time to research about how to reach UCLA’s mental health services. And after doing so, it would be especially disheartening to find that the campus doesn’t have anything catered to your struggles.

To address this problem, UCLA must adopt an orientation program hosted by the Underground Scholars Initiative for formerly incarcerated students. USI already hosts on-campus events raising awareness for system-impacted students and have formed a community of support, but it’s impossible to reach every single student that could use its help.

By reaching out to system-impacted students during a special orientation, they’ll be aware of the community and have a sense of belonging even before they enroll in classes. Additionally, they will be guided about important topics like family, housing, public assistance and internship or employment programs that have programs geared toward previously incarcerated youth.

It is equally important for the rest of UCLA’s incoming students to be aware of the group’s presence on campus, which is why UCLA should also invite a USI panelist to speak during freshman and transfer orientations. This would normalize their background and create communication with the system-impacted community, which will lead to more understanding and compassion.

UCLA should also provide its students with resources on the CAPS website that are easily accessible for these students who identify as formerly incarcerated. Another suggestion is to provide a form of support such as academic mentorship on campus on which they can count to guide them or refer them to other resources related to their academic success.

Integrating mentorship services would help alleviate burdens from their ultimate goal, but more importantly there would be a space to talk to a person who may have experienced these troubles or a role model who inspires them to push through these obstacles. It would not only create a sense of support, but would allow students to feel support coming from UCLA itself – finally creating a sense of self-being within the higher education system.

Without a basic support system for formerly incarcerated students, it is difficult for them to navigate through and succeed at a prestigious university in which they might often feel criminalized due to their background. Although some resources exist, they are not easily accessible and lack specific resources for formerly incarcerated students. Not only are the resources that UCLA offers limited, but the resources also lack inclusion of specific groups.

With more awareness of inclusive spaces, formerly incarcerated students would finally feel more comfortable with seeking resources for mental health services.

Ambar Hernandez is a fourth-year psychology student. Marcial is third-year sociology and education student. Nolasco is a fourth-year English student. Bui is a fourth-year political science student. Mayra Hernandez is an international development studies alumna.

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