Being System-Impacted at the UC: Ofelia Cuevas
Being System-Impacted at University of California -- as a student, a grad student, and a professor
Ofelia Ortiz Cuevas, Assistant Professor, Chicanx Studies
It took me several years to realize how intertwined my trajectory as a UC student—undergraduate and graduate and then professor—and the experiences of those closest to me that have been incarcerated were. But that is exactly what I have been doing [in my research] all along.
In the 1990s, the boom years of California prison building, I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. I was in many ways a non-traditional student: the first in my family to attend college, a transfer, Mexican, and older so I certainly felt out of place in so many ways that the university was just beginning to acknowledge and make space for. I joined a student of color organization, had a counselor who dealt specifically with transfer students, and a well-versed financial aid counselor that helped me find and make the most of my grant money and apply for emergency loans.
What I did not have was someone give me answers or advice on how to deal with a close family member that was in jail or one that was that was going to prison. At the time people from particular neighborhoods and/or people of color, particularly Black and Brown men and women, were being picked up at rapid rate. It was everywhere—except, I presumed, on campus at UC Berkeley.
So I kept my dreadful feelings of uncertainty to myself, sometimes hardly being able to concentrate or be present in my studies. There was always a sense of constant panic and loss: where were they? How were they? How are we going to get a lawyer? Can we get a lawyer? What do the charges even mean? How can I help take care of them? There was no one to ask and there was no one to tell. I had not yet come to understand that arrests and incarcerations that were happening everywhere were part of a larger structural project meaning there were more people everywhere with this experience.
I remained quiet until my second year of graduate school, when I had to spend a lot of time going home to be present for court dates, talk with lawyers or public defenders, find out as much as I could about the charges and the arrest—there were so many things. What I encountered was the inability of my chair to understand what it meant for me to take care of my family and our experience with the criminal justice system.
My professor studied issues of inequity and investment in race and discriminatory structures of racism historically, and yet he said to me—"You need to choose your family or school, you can’t do both.”
To finally tell someone, especially a professor that I was working closely with, what I was going through and expecting some understanding and to have the reality of the experience dismissed and begrudged was almost devastating.
Changing the Student Experience through Teaching, Research, and Service
So three years ago, when two students came to my office looking for a faculty advisor for a student group they recently organized to support students like themselves, formerly incarcerated and system-impacted trying to navigate and succeed at UC Davis, I recognized quickly their need to find others with the same experience—other students, faculty and staff, everyone and anyone who had lived or living through.
It took me several years to realize how intertwined my trajectory as a UC student—undergraduate and graduate and then professor—and those closest to me that have been incarcerated were. But that is exactly what I have been doing all along. I had already begun my work on race and incarceration and policing because it was directly related to my life.
I put the two together and was able to have insights that I would not have had otherwise and build on the work of scholars who had already begun to lay the important foundations to understand the present condition and critical issues of over incarceration.