Formerly incarcerated students share their experiences behind bars, and how they found their purpose in education.

Formerly incarcerated students undergo trauma, physical and mental battles, lack of support, and systematic stereotypes they cannot excel because of their criminal record. The Rising Scholars at Palomar wants to change that. Their stories show their strength and dedication are stronger than any obstacle.

Vanessa Rojas

Vanessa Rojas, 51, is a mother of three and a rising scholar at Palomar majoring in law and public policy. She’s building a new life for herself through education. 

However, as a child Rojas experienced sexual, physical, and mental abuse.

“As a young kid, when my innocence was taken from me, I lost my identity. I was always dissatisfied with things, and my view of the world was distorted,” Rojas said.

Rojas used drugs to cope with trauma. At 11, her drug use quickly escalated into her young
adulthood. Dropping out of school at 15 due to her first pregnancy wasn’t something that phased Rojas.

“Being in an abusive relationship takes away any of your self-worth,” Rojas said. Her lack of interest in school didn’t bother her, and her drug use escalated. 

After her third child, who was born with special needs, her drug use continued. Rojas’ addiction continued until a former family member reported her to the police. Rojas then began her life being in and out of the system. 

“I just could never get clean, and when I did, I just went right back to using. I just never got to the root cause, which was the trauma, but I wasn’t ready,” Rojas said.

“I thought I was going to die with a needle in my arm because I couldn’t see a life outside of what I knew,” said Rojas.

Rojas was diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. She was prescribed psychotropic medication, but never felt at ease. Rojas’s drug intake was so extreme, that a judge said putting her in jail was the only way to save her life.

“My mentality was always, ‘It’s us against them,’ not knowing there are people in corrections that care,” Rojas said.

In 2017, Rojas wanted to get clean but unfortunately got involved in a federal indictment with about 55 people. She was sentenced to 10 years, but the sentence was reduced by three years due to remorse.

“I wanted to get home. I just wanted to do all the programming, and I’ll never have to go back there,” Rojas said. Rojas studied law and the incarceration system and fell in love with education. After meeting a counselor she bonded with, she excelled in her program.

“Nobody wants to go to prison, but it changed my life for the better,” Rojas said. 

Rojas found comfort in God. This motivated her path to sobriety. She finally felt the clarity and relief she was searching for. 

During COVID-19, Rojas wrote to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which does bipartisan policy work nationwide. Once FAMM contacted the court,  Rojas received a compassionate release and was ordered to find a job within 30 days.

However, Rojas struggled to find a job because of her record. Then, Rojas found a Rising Scholars pamphlet and immediately wanted to be a part of it. While facing struggles with work, she finally had the opportunity to dedicate herself fully to school.

“I want to use the skills I am learning here, and help change policies and fill in some of these gaps for people like myself, who maybe don’t see a life outside of what they know,” said Rojas.

“Just because we made bad choices, doesn’t mean we are bad people”- Vanessa Rojas 

Eduardo Vasquez 

Eduardo Vasquez, 28, is a sociology major at Palomar. He’s also a rising scholar who plans to use his past experiences to help educate people.

Growing up, Vasquez struggled with neglect and physical abuse from his parents.

Enduring immense amounts of physical and mental abuse from his mother and her partner at the time. At 10, Vasquez had enough, and he ran away to live with his father. 

“I saw it as ‘If she was my mom, she was supposed to love me.’ But it was none of that. She treated me like an animal,” Vasquez said.

After dropping out of high school, Vasquez began to get involved in gang activity. The lack of attention from his father made Vasquez feel like there was no choice but to find a new family.

“I started to see they had everything. Respect, popularity, the cars, the girls, and I started to get attracted to that…This life seems like it has a purpose,” Vasquez said. 

At 11, he was jumped into a gang and was willing to die for it.

“It all comes down to what is going on in the house that leads kids this route. You feel that love, you feel that sense of belonging, a sense of purpose. This life gave me an identity,” Vasquez said.

As a result, Vasquez spent time in and out of juvenile hall. However, that didn’t phase Vasquez; instead, he felt it earned him respect.

As Vasquez got older, his crimes progressed. At 17, he was tried as an adult for the first time. Because of his undocumented status, he was set up for deportation after completing his sentence.

“I did not care about the outcomes of any situation. Getting life didn’t scare me,” said Vasquez. 

While in prison, Vasquez was caught possessing a knife. This, combined with other reckless behavior, added two years to his sentence. He was shipped to High Desert State Prison at 20 years old.

High Desert State Prison is one of the most violent prisons in California. However, High Desert also offered college courses to inmates to get time off their sentence.

“The homies were encouraging me to do it. They told me to take advantage of it and that I was smart, so I started learning more about sociology… It connected to everything I lived, and it all started making sense. This was destined for me,” said Vasquez. 

Vasquez continued his education and graduated from several self-help programs. “I got addicted to reading, taking notes, and learning…I am a bookworm straight up,” Vasquez said.

On April 1, 2020, Eduardo Vasquez was traveling to ICE headquarters with another inmate. “I already accepted the fact I was being deported. I didn’t try to fight it,” Vasquez said. 

While the paperwork was being reviewed, they hoped one of them would be able to stay due to their unknown residency in the US. 

The transportation officers went to pick up one of them and said, “Eduardo Vasquez, you got to go!” “This is a messed-up April fool’s joke,” Vasquez said. Fortunately, Vasquez held US residency and was able to remain in California. He felt like a new person.

“I didn’t care if we had to be in our house or wear a mask. Just the fact I could go to Carl’s Jr and eat a burger was enough good for me. I was on a whole new mentality, and I accumulated a lot of wisdom,” Vasquez said. 

His ambition for education led him to Palomar where he contacted Rising Scholars to help him achieve his educational goals.

Now as a first-generation college student, he is working to become a youth and substance abuse counselor and wants to help those with similar life experiences.

“If the people in jail applied that intelligence and charisma from the gang world to real life, they would have been such powerful people in society. I analyzed it and took their wisdom with me,” said Vasquez.

“BEING INCARCERATED IS NOT AN OBSTACLE”- Eduardo Vasquez

How is Palomar helping incarcerated students? 

Nora Kenney, head of Rising Scholars, aims to help former and currently incarcerated students build a new path. According to Kenney, 155 formerly incarcerated students joined the program between fall 2022 and fall 2023.

“Almost half of all people in the United States have a family member that has either been to jail or prison, so this issue impacts all of us…it’s a ripple effect,” said Kenney.

Students with former substance abuse issues can receive certifications to become counselors to help those in similar situations. Rising Scholars is run by students, for the students.

Kenney’s hard effort to build a positive environment in the Rising Scholars program is continuing to grow and her love for students never fades.

“What keeps my students here is my unconditional love. I don’t judge,” said Kenney.