After spending 18 months in prison, Irene Sotelo had no idea what her next step would be.

At age 44, Sotelo had faced struggle after struggle throughout her life. After dropping out of school at 13 years old, she battled drug addiction for decades.

Even though she had passed the GED when she was 18, she left prison unable to work due to her lack of experience, as well as a disability from an anxiety- and drug withdrawal-induced stroke.

Still, Sotelo was determined to chart a new path. So she enrolled at Cerritos College.

By the time she transferred to Cal State Long Beach about four years later, in 2016, she had earned highest honors at her community college.

“I started loving school, because my first A gave me a feeling of accomplishment,” said Sotelo, now 57. “I did something for myself—that feeling, ‘I’m going to challenge myself to see if I could do it again.’”

While at Cal State Long Beach, one of Sotelo’s first classes happened to be with assistant law professor James Binnall, who shared that he had been formerly incarcerated.

“After class, I thought, ‘I want to be where you’re at,’” Sotelo said. “I knew I was going someplace after that. If he could do it, it gave me hope. And after that, I just kept pushing forward.”

After connecting to fellow formerly incarcerated students Joe Louis Hernadez and Adrian Vasquez, and with the support of Binnall, Sotelo in 2016 co-founded Rising Scholars, a student-run program that supports formerly incarcerated students and has since expanded across California community colleges as the Rising Scholars Network.

“That’s how we started identifying more students,” Sotelo said. “That’s when we realized there’s a need here.”

The creation of Rising Scholars also served as the groundwork to later officially establish Cal State Long Beach’s chapter of Project Rebound, a program first established in 1967 at San Francisco State University to help formerly incarcerated students succeed academically.

In 2020, funding for Project Rebound was added to the state budget, creating official programming at five Cal State campuses including Long Beach; as of 2023, the program is at 15 Cal State University campuses.

“We’re hoping we could get all 23 CSUs,” Sotelo said.

The two programs now co-exist. While they have similar missions, there are some key differences: Rising Scholars receives no state funding, and while it accepts allies and those with family members impacted by the system, Project Rebound requires that participants be formerly incarcerated.

Since its inception, Project Rebound has seen significant success. According to the California State University system, Project Rebound students had a recidivism rate of 0% between 2016 and 2020, compared to the statewide average of 50% of offenders who are convicted of a crime again within three years.

Project Rebound members across the state also had a higher student retention rate than CSU’s population overall, meaning more students in the program returned to campus after their first year.

The support the students receive in Project Rebound is key because, for many formerly incarcerated students, adjusting to a college atmosphere can be difficult. Challenges include struggling with imposter syndrome and adapting to an academic environment and updated technology, Sotelo explained.

With support from Project Rebound, students receive guidance in academic counseling and planning, study support and technology assistance, connection to re-entry services and other resources, and more.

“A lot of these people get out, feel like they have impostor syndrome, that they don’t belong, because a lot of us are older. The more time you’ve done, the more trauma or anxiety you get coming to a campus like that,” Sotelo said. “We tried to ease that for them by letting them come to our safe space—‘It’s OK, there’s more of us here, don’t feel like you’re the only one here.’”

Over the past few years of advocating for other incarcerated students, Sotelo has also fought to heal from her own past.

“There’s a lot of trauma in anybody formerly incarcerated,” said Sotelo.

For Sotelo, her trauma goes back decades.

Almost 10 days before Sotelo’s 12th birthday, her mother died by suicide, propelling Sotelo into drug experimentation and gang involvement.

“I guess I was looking for something in the streets that I wasn’t getting no more from home,” Sotelo said. “I didn’t have a home life, but the streets was my life. … There was a lot of stuff that a normal 12-year-old shouldn’t be doing at that age.”

After a string of drug-related arrests throughout her teenage years, Sotelo got sober right before her 19th birthday. She was in a serious relationship, and she wanted to have a child.

She had her son, and her daughter followed three years later—a time Sotelo considers to be the best in her life.

“Even though my husband was a drinker, it was still the happiest time of my life,” Sotelo said. “I had a purpose now.”

But when Sotelo reached her 30s, she developed cervical cancer and was prescribed pain medication that sent her spiraling back into active addiction and drug use.

By the time she was 37 or 38, Sotelo had turned to meth, and it wasn’t long before she left her home of 19 years to live in a nearby park, where she sustained her drug use by committing crimes.

One night, Sotelo was violently attacked and assaulted.

When her husband picked her up from the hospital, he told Sotelo that he couldn’t take her home.

“I understood, (he) didn’t want the kids to see me that way,” Sotelo said.

Without the money to pay for a hotel, Sotelo was dropped back off at the same park she had just come from.

As much as she wanted to go home, Sotelo felt unable to remove herself from the cycle of drug use, arrests and violence, she said.

“I would pray to get off that drug … I didn’t want to live that way,” Sotelo said. “But I couldn’t find the right help.”

The turning point in Sotelo’s life, though, didn’t come until she was ultimately arrested one more time.

After being sentenced to seven years in prison, she suffered a stroke leaving her paralyzed on her left side.

While in prison, she began the process of healing from her trauma through substance abuse counseling, all while fighting to walk again.

“I started learning my triggers, what causes people to do drugs,” Sotelo said. “That’s when I realized I was self-medicating.”

But the true healing for Sotelo didn’t begin until she was released from prison after 18 months.

“I was already going through the stroke part, dealing with that, I had a heart attack, not able to see my kids the whole time I was in prison—that was hard,” Sotelo said. “I got letters from my daughter here and there, but my son don’t write like that. … That’s the part that was hard.”

“The healing didn’t start until I got out,” she added.

By then, though, she had regained her mobility.

“I still struggle. I still now am back on my cane and I have a walker again,” Sotelo said. “But I was determined to leave that prison a whole different person.”

While at Cerritos College, Sotelo began therapy, where she learned about the roots of her addiction.

“Still to this day, there’s certain things that come up that I don’t realize that are part of my healing,” said Sotelo. She even began to attend stand-up comedy shows each week, finding that laughter. Even if she had heard the same jokes before, it was able to heal any mood she was in.

Since then, Sotelo has focused her energy on helping others in similar situations.

After earning her master’s degree in social work from Cal State Long Beach in 2021, Sotelo became the school’s Project Rebound program director.

Apart from her work with Rising Scholars and Project Rebound, Sotelo has spent time with young girls in juvenile halls, and has attempted to partner with the city of Long Beach on a reentry program, although there have been difficulties, Sotelo said.

“They ask us our needs, we give them a whole list of stuff that we want to move forward with, but it never seems to move forward,” Sotelo said. “We don’t see the progress. Being part of something that is run by us, for us, that’s the only way I think we’re gonna get the assistance.”

More support in particular is needed with job placement, as many formerly incarcerated students who receive their degrees are competing with younger graduates while potentially facing job discrimination, according to Sotelo.

“But a lot of us are working with our population,” Sotelo said. “There’s just making those opportunities available, finding more resources specifically for us—but who better to help us but us?”

Although recovering from her past is an ongoing process, as Sotelo shares more of her story, not only is she able to help others, but piece by piece, she heals, she said.

“All that I went through is what made me stronger today,” Sotelo said.

In August of last year, she moved out on her own for the first time since she was in prison into her own apartment.

“I feel freedom,” Sotelo said.

“I’m living a life now where I have integrity. I didn’t know that word til I got out of prison,” said Sotelo. “To me, I feel like now paying it forward for all the damage I’ve done in my life.”

After starting with 14 students including Sotelo in 2020, Project Rebound began this year with 64 Cal State Long Beach students, a number Sotelo expects to grow to 70 after the first couple weeks of the semester.

Of those 64, 30 students will be graduating from the university this year—an enormous accomplishment for the program itself and for the students, Sotelo said.

“I’m proud to say I helped build this movement,” Sotelo said. “We built those paths as I was a student, now we’re making it a little bit easier for those coming after us.”