With more than two decades of experience helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed in higher education, Boyle Heights native Victor M. Rojas became director of TRIO programs—federal programs to increase access to higher education for economically disadvantaged students—at Mt. San Antonio College in 2017. Later, he organized Mt. SAC’s branch of Rising Scholars, which assists previously incarcerated individuals and others impacted by the penal system. Here, Rojas discusses his efforts to reduce recidivism and combat negative stereotypes through academic and mental health supports.
How would you describe Rising Scholars?
We empower students to thrive. The beauty of our program is that we have four different pathways, so we help individuals anywhere on their educational trajectory. The first is for people looking to complete their high school diploma or GED. The second is for any certificates students might need for a job they’re looking to get. The third is our associate’s degree pathway, and the fourth is our four-year transfer pathway. Rising Scholars doesn’t have a set curriculum, but one thing we’re very conscientious of is holistic development of our students. We are not taught the soft skills we need by the educational system. We help students inside and outside of the classroom through workshops, seminars, and cultural activities. We also partner with the L.A. Public Defender’s Office so we can offer the students the option to have their records expunged and the L.A. Parole Office to have an alternative to incarceration. Our program is about exposing individuals to opportunities they might not otherwise have and obtaining skills that are going to make them successful once they leave our doorstep.
Why is Rising Scholars important?
Our prison system does not work. It’s punitive, not rehabilitative. We don’t train individuals who were incarcerated to be productive members of society when they come out, so the likelihood of recidivism is going to be pretty high. Programs like ours can be that plug to stop the leaking in the pipeline and help lower the recidivism rate. A lot of my students were labeled criminals or burdens on society, but a lot of times, society did not afford them the opportunities that others may have had. We tell folks, whether on or off campus, that we’ve all made mistakes and that mistakes do not define who we are. Sharing that message with our campus community has been important because once they have an opportunity to interact with our students, they see that these individuals are super ambitious, super motivated to succeed, and those preconceived ideas disappear.
What’s one of your favorite memories related to Rising Scholars?
I am going to preface my story by saying that we tell our students that they are scholars, learned persons with specialties in a given branch of knowledge. In my office, I hire some of my students to be assistants, and one day, we got a big shipment of T-shirts. I got here early in the morning, and we were trying to push those boxes into our backroom so they’re not in the way as people walk in. We’re all sweating and whatnot, and I asked one of my assistants, “Hey, can you help carry these boxes to the back?” My student says, “Mr. Rojas, I came to college so that I wouldn’t have to move boxes. I’m a scholar now; I do the heavy lifting with my brain.” He was joking and ended up helping me move the boxes, but it was super gratifying to me because it showed that he knows that he’ll get further working with his head than his hands. The joke told me our students are understanding what we are trying to do with them.
What does the future look like for Rising Scholars?
We’ve just started and there’s so much more to do. We recently had our first graduation ceremony with 14 individuals. It was a beautiful event. I want to graduate hundreds of individuals each year. I am very proud that we are one of the few programs in the state where the majority of the staff was system impacted or formerly incarcerated. We need to provide our students with more opportunities to grow and learn. We need to partner with different industries and develop the next generation of workers who can help our economy thrive. We want to be the model program for the entire state, if not the country.