State Sen. Nancy Skinner names formerly incarcerated student advocate ‘Woman of the Year’

Violeta Alvarez/Courtesy

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Update 3/15/18: This article has been updated to reflect additional information from Berkeley Underground Scholars Executive Director Violeta Alvarez.

Violeta Alvarez, executive director of the Berkeley Underground Scholars program, was named “2018 Woman of the Year” by state Sen. Nancy Skinner for her work with formerly incarcerated students in a tweet Tuesday.

Skinner said she honored Alvarez because she has attended Berkeley Underground Scholars, or BUS, graduations since 2014 and was impressed by Alvarez’s leadership.

“Her trajectory from being an incarcerated person to pulling herself up through education, becoming a student at UC Berkeley and then founding the Underground Scholars to support other students just like her — it’s incredible,” Skinner said.

Alvarez spent time in jail on and off from her teen years until she was 20 years old. She eventually was able to go back to school, get her high school diploma and enroll in community college, where she kept her identity as a formerly incarcerated person mostly hidden.

“I never spoke about my incarceration experience in community college because of stigma against formerly incarcerated people,” Alvarez said.

After transferring to UC Berkeley, Alvarez met Danny Murillo and Steven Czifra, two other formerly incarcerated students. The three of them then collaborated and founded the Underground Scholars Initiative, or USI, a campus organization dedicated to bringing together formerly incarcerated students and giving them a collective voice on campus, in fall 2013. Alvarez added that they collaborated with Wendy Pacheco and David Maldonado — making the core group of founders five individuals.

In July 2016, after receiving state funding, BUS was founded as part of UC Berkeley’s Centers for Educational Equity and Excellence, or CE3.

“Berkeley Underground Scholars focuses on three main areas: recruitment, retention and advocacy for formerly incarcerated students,” Alvarez said.

BUS maintains 16 ambassadors at 12 community colleges throughout California and aims to recruit formerly incarcerated community college students into the BUS program.

The organization advocates against policies such as the required disclosure of criminal history on job applications, which Alvarez said works against the formerly incarcerated community. BUS also provides members with tutors, job application help and other forms of support. Alvarez said the goal of the program is to help formerly incarcerated students thrive at college and prepare them for their post-college careers.

“In this recent cohort of community college students, every single one that applied got into a UC — we were very proud of that,” Alvarez said.

Abdullah Puckett, BUS outreach coordinator and a campus senior, talked about his experiences working with Alvarez and about her commitment to the students.

“The main thing that sticks out to me is her commitment to really making sure that the students are not left out of the decision-making,” Puckett said. “She remains committed to making sure the formerly incarcerated students are heard; she stays working on those issues.”

Puckett called the “Woman of the Year” accolade “amazing” and added that he thinks Alvarez deserves it.

Contact Luke Kopetsky at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @LukeKopetsky.