He tried to appear casual — just another motorist crossing into the United States from Mexico. No white knuckles on the steering wheel, no sweat on his brow, no broken tail light, nothing to see here. But on this day, Omar Chavez’s demeanor and nondescript vehicle couldn’t save him; the Border Patrol had uncovered a pattern that allowed them to discern which cars were running drugs.
He was driving such a car.
As a student of color from East Los Angeles, Chavez had overcome many obstacles in pursuit of his bachelor’s degree at California State University, Fullerton — from attending underserved schools to being the first in his family to attend college — but on the road that day, as he was waved into secondary inspection, he knew he’d let these obstacles get the best of him. It didn’t matter that his goal was to make quick cash to pay for college; he was committing a crime, one that not only undermined his own principles, but also hurt the people of the very communities he came from.
Chavez couldn’t have known it at the time, but decades prior to his own arrest, a man named John Irwin was convicted for robbing a gas station. And while these two felonies are separated by more than half a century, the men who committed them are connected through the one true solution to crime and poverty — higher education — and what is arguably the nation’s most impactful system in purveying equitable access to it: the California State University.
For Irwin, it began in prison where he earned 24 college credits and it continued upon his release with a bachelor’s degree, a Ph.D. and, ultimately, a 30-year career at San Francisco State, where he served as a professor of sociology and criminology. His teaching, along with the belief that higher education could be a redemptive path for others, prompted him to create Project Rebound at San Francisco State in 1967.
The program, which aims to end the revolving door of mass incarceration by supporting current and formerly imprisoned individuals to earn a college degree, has produced hundreds of graduates, with only 3 percent returning to prison — an outstanding recidivism rate when you consider the national average is close to 80 percent. In 2016, with the support of the CSU, the Opportunity Institute and the advocacy of Brady Heiner, associate professor of philosophy, Project Rebound expanded to eight other CSU campuses, including Cal State Fullerton, where Heiner now serves as the program’s director.
And while Chavez was oblivious to this history when he was arrested, his conviction was a wake-up call, one that strengthened his resolve to right his wrongs and complete his bachelor’s degree in linguistics. In prison, he continued educating himself and encouraged others to do the same by serving as a teacher. He also made a habit of checking his Titan Degree Audit, an online resource that enables Cal State Fullerton students to track their academic progress. On the computer screen, he was so close to his degree, but in his cell, he was so far from the commencement stage.
After nearly two years, Chavez was released but faced another obstacle: re-enrolling at Cal State Fullerton with a devastating black mark. He’d heard talk of the university’s commitment to support all students from all backgrounds, but would the institution walk the talk?
Upon his return to campus, he was introduced to the Project Rebound coordinator, Romarilyn Ralston, herself a formerly incarcerated person who now holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees. When she explained the program would support him with financial aid, mentorship and tutoring, he broke down crying. “I had no idea anything like this existed,” he later said. “That’s when I knew that I, too, had a place at this university.”
In May, that place was on our commencement stage as Chavez became the first in his family and the first in Project Rebound history to earn a bachelor’s degree from Cal State Fullerton. You can hear the emotion in his voice when he talks about the faculty and staff members who supported him, calling them “the best kind of human beings that exist.” Perhaps that is why he aspires to join them by pursuing a career in the CSU that helps others reintegrate into society with the transformative power of higher education. “I want to do something worthy of my name and alma mater,” he said.
By graduating, he’s already done that, as many aspire to follow in his footsteps, including the seven Project Rebound students currently attending the university, the five more enrolling in the fall, and the 300 potential Titans who’ve been contacted by the Project Rebound team through outreach. Like all students, theirs is a dream worth achieving, and in honor of John Irwin who passed away in 2010, we at Cal State Fullerton are proud to support them in reaching for it.
The Orange County Register