SF State program lets incarcerated youth pursue higher education

Students sitting in desks in a classroom

Students at the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton participating in the first class of the program.

Students can earn a 12-unit certificate in ethnic studies

Alex is getting an opportunity that can be rare for incarcerated transitional youth like him: a college education. He recently finished a college-level course and says he gained not only a better understanding of ethnic studies, but also a sense of belonging.

“It’s just a really great feeling,” said Alex (whose true, full name is omitted to protect his privacy). “It’s also been awesome to, within the role of academia, feel accepted. That’s something I can be part of when I do reenter society.”

Alex’s transformative experience was made possible through a new partnership of the San Francisco State University College of Ethnic Studies; Associated Students’ Project Rebound program, which helps enroll people from the criminal justice system into the University; and the California Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). Together, they launched a university-level certificate program in ethnic studies empowerment for incarcerated DJJ youth.

“We’ve seen how these courses transform students’ lives at SF State, and we hope that they will have a similar impact on DJJ students,” College of Ethnic Studies Dean Amy Sueyoshi said. “Ethnic studies offers a broader lens for students to better understand their personal difficulties as structural and create a framework for change in which they can play an active role.”

This initiative was designed to help students develop stronger critical thinking and teach the importance of history, science, culture and community. Project Rebound, which works directly with students like Alex in DJJ facilities to encourage higher education and provide academic counseling, funded the students’ tuition.

The certificate, launched this past fall, requires 12 units of courses across College of Ethnic Studies disciplines: Africana Studies, American Indian Studies, Asian American Studies, Latina/Latino Studies and Race and Resistance Studies. The roughly 30 students who enrolled recently finished the first class of the program, “Critical Thinking and the Ethnic Studies Experience,” which was taught virtually by SF State Lecturer of Race and Resistance Studies Nate Tan.

Tan is also an SF State alumnus who earned his master’s degree in Ethnic Studies and has been teaching at San Quentin State Prison since 2014. Drawing from his unique background, he had a goal in mind when he took on this new role teaching DJJ students. “I hope what they take away is a sense of empowerment from the curriculum, so I try to make the curriculum be reflective of their lives,” he said.

His approach appears to be working. While taking the course with Tan, Alex reflected more deeply on his white and Mexican identities. Specifically, he reflected on how he appears white and grew up with white family members but has a Hispanic name.

“I’ve always been existing in both worlds but not feeling comfortable in either one,” he said. “The ethnic studies class and the way it kind of relates to race has given me insight into other people’s stories. Maybe there are some people that can relate to me out there.”