Campus hosts 1st ever graduation ceremony for formerly incarcerated students

Jessica Gleason/Staff

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David Maldonado stood above the crowd that had packed into Anna Head Alumnae Hall — a crowd that included the mayor of Berkeley, a former campus chancellor, a California state senator, Maldonado’s smiling wife and kids, and his fellow graduates — and changed the song. On top of everything else, he was the graduation DJ.

Maldonado is also a man who has, in many ways, lived two lives. Just eight years ago, he was serving the last of his prison sentences, with the prospect of graduating from a prestigious university with a master’s degree almost unthinkable.

After obtaining his GED while incarcerated, Maldonado attended Berkeley City College and then transferred to UC Berkeley at the age of 40. Since then, he has earned a bachelor’s degree in Chicano studies and a master’s degree in education from UC Berkeley, the latter of which he received this year. He plans to stay on campus with the hope of acquiring a doctorate in social and cultural studies from the Graduate School of Education.

“I guess you could say he’s doing a lot of time at Berkeley,” joked his wife Kimberly Maldonado, whom he met on campus in the summer of 2012. “He has accomplished so much in spite of all his challenges, and I’m very proud of him.”

Pride was a central theme for the 14 formerly incarcerated UC Berkeley graduates who were honored at a special ceremony held Sunday afternoon in Anna Head Alumnae Hall. The ceremony — organized by the the Underground Scholars Initiative, a campus student group that advocates for current and prospective students affected by the prison system — was the first of its kind.

The USI was founded in 2013 by Danny Murillo and graduate Steven Czifra, who met at UC Berkeley and quickly realized that they had both been incarcerated at the Security Housing Unit in Pelican Bay State Prison. The pair has since worked tirelessly, alongside other formerly incarcerated students, to assist, support and “provide a safe space” for those with similar backgrounds, according to Murillo.

“We’re resilient overachievers,” Murillo said at the ceremony, adding that for the USI, “this is just the beginning.”

The ceremony’s keynote speaker, state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, said the state plans to have community college and degree programs in every California prison by year’s end. She noted that such efforts to reform the prison system are driven by success stories like those of the graduates.

“Having spent so much time trying to break a pipeline, the school-to-prison pipeline, it’s amazing now to work with the USI to build a new pipeline, the prison-to-school pipeline,” Hancock said at the ceremony.

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates gave a few brief remarks, telling the graduating class that “the future is going to be yours.”

Former UC Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who delivered one of the longer speeches of the afternoon, said that as the first member of his family to get a high school diploma, he appreciated the tremendous difficulty the graduates faced in overcoming less-than-optimal backgrounds.

“You’re extraordinary people, and you should never feel second-class to anyone, ever,” Birgeneau told the graduating class. “What you’ve done is heroic.”

Birgeneau also vehemently condemned the fact that many states, including California, spend more money on incarcerating people than they spend on post-incarceration support, calling the practice a “national disgrace.”

For Maldonado, the USI is providing crucial steps on the path toward a better outlook for formerly incarcerated individuals re-entering society.

“Everyone comes (to UC Berkeley) hoping to change the world, but that’s obviously hard to do, especially for people like me,” Maldonado said. “But watching everything that USI has accomplished and seeing everyone here today, it actually makes me believe that change can happen. And it is happening.”

Logan Goldberg is the executive news editor. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @logangoldberg.