From Impalas to lowriders, funk music boomed as classic cars snaked through SAC’s lot 7 for Project Rise’s Cruising for Higher Education.
Unless you asked, you would’ve never known that the car clubs came to support formerly incarcerated students all pursuing higher education.
The club’s logo is an orange phoenix—a symbol of resurrection and life after death.
Project Rise is a club at Santa Ana College supporting justice-impacted students in navigating college life.
Whether that means being formerly incarcerated or having a close relative involved in the justice system, students are guided through customized mentorship, advocacy, acceptance, and community building.
“Our current president just got accepted into UCI,” said Accounting Professor Mark McCallick, faculty adviser for Project Rise, beaming with pride under the blistering sun.
Project Rise was started by McCallick and psychology major Blake Krawl three years ago. Krawl, the club’s first president, was SAC’s 2021 Valedictorian.
“[Many have] these predisposed ideas of someone who’s been to jail or prison,” says Krawl, who transferred to Cal State Long Beach, “all they see is that you’re a convict or have a criminal record. They see that record, which reflects who you are now, no matter how long it’s been.”
Krawl struggled with drug addiction and mental health for a decade, bouncing in and out of jail. Things took a turn when Krawl’s Probation Officer suggested he get a job and enroll in credits at SAC.
“I’m on an ankle monitor. I’m going to all these classes, and I’m always wearing pants so no one sees I’m on probation,” said Krawl. “Whenever I would go to campus, I would feel out of place.”
Project Rise was originally for youth to earn their high school diplomas. Krawl reached out to Ruth Ramirez, the director at the time, and introduced him to McCallick, who was interested in starting the program at SAC.
“Mark and I got all the documents; it was last minute. We had deadlines almost immediately,” said Krawl. He went to the Inter-Club Council meetings to get support.
“It was uncomfortable, but I had to put myself on blast,” said Krawl.
Others later reached out, telling him they were also formerly incarcerated, “I didn’t even know that there were students who shared these experiences on campus.”
At the time, Krawl was only one of five self-identified formerly incarcerated students in Project Rise at SAC. A 2019 study revealed that an estimated 1,000 formerly incarcerated students are enrolled in California Community Colleges and Universities.
In that same study, almost half of the incarcerated students who attempted at least one graded course earned a 4.0 GPA.
On average, incarcerated college students’ grades were higher than their community college counterparts.
“Today, I see a future. I’m not just looking at the bachelor’s degree. I’m looking at doctoral programs—something I didn’t even see two years ago; I had no idea,” said SAC’s current Project Rise president, Jennifer Sandoval.
Sandoval said she struggled with substance abuse for about 20 years. In 2015, she was shot twice.
“It caused many medical issues, so I’ve been dealing with that for seven years. Last semester, I had to go in for emergency surgery, which took me off work.”
Santa Ana is Sandoval’s fourth community college, where she discovered Project Rise.
“Just because we have this past doesn’t mean we can’t change our futures,” said Sandoval, one of 40 club members.
She is continuing her undergraduate studies next fall at UCI while Krawl begins law school at UCLA.
Outside of college, formerly incarcerated individuals face challenges in almost every aspect of daily life, “it shows up on housing and school applications for different jobs you wanna get. It’s a huge barrier, and I hope people would take the time to realize that,” Krawl said.
“[I wish] people understood what it’s like to try and gain your life back when there are so many systems working against you.”
As scholars, the stigma is ever-present: “I’ve felt it in employment. I felt it at school. I felt it internally; even if other people aren’t acting that way, it’s something within me,” said Sandoval. “I stigmatize myself, and it’s not intentional.”
Project Rise is not alone in helping justice-impacted students. Other programs, such as Underground Scholars and Project Rebound, provide transitional services into higher education on Cal State and UC campuses.
“Project rebound gave me a seamless transition into a four-year institution,” said Krawl. “[They] also offered me a job as a research assistant.”
Project Rise does not have a dedicated space on SAC’s campus.
“We want our own space where we have a club center and our Rising Scholar’s office so that they can check in and study there,” said McCallick. “We’ve lost a lot of students—they walk on campus, and they don’t really know where to find anything.”
Rising Scholars is a network that supports formerly incarcerated students across California on the community college level.
The network helps fund student needs—including parking permits, books, personal necessities, and Project Rise held events.
The 2nd Annual Cruising for Higher Education Fundraiser served as an exposure event and fundraiser for the club. All donations and money collected through the raffles support student needs.
“Why Cruising for Higher Education? They did one last year, and it was minimal. I said we could get this big and set up the parking lot. I have a 62 Impala.” said Saul Garcia, coordinator for Rising Scholars.
“My goal was to bring the community closer. So they can be aware of what classes are being offered at SAC,” Garcia said.
As coordinator, Garcia provides support by advocating for funding, marketing, and spreading the word to the community.
Garcia also attends workshops inside the juvenile hall at Theo Lacy Facility, bringing awareness to the transitional services into higher education, “I let the community know that if anybody has started some type of educational classes when they get released, they can continue their education with SAC.”
With this support, students like Hayme Lopez, a club member who has been involved since the Fall of 2021, now have a path to success.
“I would have quit if I was left to my own will,” said Lopez.
Being 50 and a mother of 7, she isn’t the standard student, but she continues to work hard and set an excellent example for her kids, looking to transfer to a local university next year.
“It’s almost like they are gonna die tomorrow. They lost a lot of time in their life, and they are trying to make it up,” McCallick said as more custom-painted impalas cruised in.
This story is so uplifting. Thank you, el Don, for keeping us informed of events that not only inform us but inspire and motivate us to be our best in our community. I am so blessed to be a part of Project Rise.