New UC Davis Program Supports Students Formerly Incarcerated, Impacted by Justice System

A male and a female student stand with Joshua "Gunner" Johnson
UC Davis students Laurin Williams, left, and Shakil Chaudhry, center, are excited about the new Underground Scholars Program, which will serve formerly incarcerated students like themselves as well as those otherwise impacted by the criminal justice system. Joshua “Gunner” Johnson, right, is program director. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Shakil Chaudhry was in and out of jail for nearly three decades, so he knows about open and closed doors.

And the senior at the University of California, Davis, has something to say about the campus’s new Underground Scholars Program for formerly incarcerated students and those who have been directly impacted by the justice system.

“It’s going to open doors to be able to do so much more,” said Chaudhry, a transfer student who is working toward a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

The program held an open house at its facilities in South Hall on Wednesday, Jan. 24.

Laurin Williams, a UC Davis junior hired as the part-time student assistant for the program, is excited about what the program will be able to do. “Having a dedicated space on campus and having people working with our community is impactful,” she said.

Within the university’s Office of Educational Opportunity and Enrichment Services, the program is funded through an annual $490,000 state allocation over three years to support higher education for formerly incarcerated students. The Underground Scholars space in Room 26 of South Hall includes offices for the director and coordinator, lounge space for students, study desks, a microwave and hot coffee on offer.

Joshua “Gunner” Johnson, who has about six years’ experience supporting formerly incarcerated and justice-involved students, started Nov. 1 as program director. He served more than a decade in prison and went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology, both from Sacramento State.

Trevor Clark is the program coordinator. He earned two associate degrees while serving almost 10 years in a Nevada state prison. After his release, he transferred to UC Davis and earned a bachelor’s degree in linguistics in 2017.

The program will expand on the efforts of, and work in partnership with, the Underground Scholars Initiative, a registered student organization established at UC Davis in 2019. It will support formerly incarcerated students and those who have been impacted by the criminal justice system, perhaps through arrest without conviction or through a family member’s incarceration.

Williams and Chaudhry, who are part of the student organization, said up to about a dozen students participate in its meetings. They and Johnson expect more students will get involved with the new program as it becomes better known.

Johnson said the program aims to foster a college-going culture among currently and formerly incarcerated people and to make higher education more accessible and supportive for them. He said the program will help UC Davis students navigate the challenges of reentry and reintegration, find community, access campus resources, develop a sense of personal agency, learn to advocate for themselves and their community, and connect with meaningful careers.

“An education changes a person’s perception of what is possible,” said Johnson, adding that it can change even the dynamics within a family and have positive impact across generations.

Establishing the program, Johnson said, says something about UC Davis: “It really shows the commitment UC Davis has to equity and doing what we can to change the system.”

Program funding will support grants to help students with academic and basic needs as well as attending professional development and community advocacy conferences. The program sponsored a Friendsgiving meal for the student group in November. Upcoming activities include a workshop to take professional headshots and improve resumes and another about expunging criminal records.

Williams, who served 28 days in a county jail, said she hopes the program will also help create more acceptance and welcome for formerly incarcerated students on campus. “I want to be accepted as a human … that is not here to harm but looking toward our future and our growth.”

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