"Having an education, it just opens up the world," says Project Rebound program coordinator Alton Williams, left, walking on campus with student assistant Karessa Cohron. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

When Sacramento State’s Project Rebound office set up shop last year, one of the first calls the program received was from Karessa Cohron.

Cohron had battled drug and alcohol addiction and was briefly jailed on fraud charges before being released on the condition she get clean. She had returned to community college and was preparing to travel north from her hometown of Redondo Beach to attend Sacramento State in the fall.

“Before I moved up to Northern California, I wanted to find a program that supported formerly incarcerated students, but I hadn’t seen it yet,” she said. “So when I found Project Rebound, I wanted to be a part of it, and it’s been a wonderful experience.”

Now, a year after Cohron’s call, Project Rebound at Sacramento State is supporting 16 formerly incarcerated students and hopes that number grows to 25 during the academic year. The program’s staff has been reaching out to incarcerated individuals, including through visits to Folsom State Prison and other facilities, and plans a fall open house.

“This is such an important program, and much of the past year has been spent getting it up and running here at Sacramento State,” said Melissa Repa, who serves as the interim director of Project Rebound as well as the interim director of the Career Center. “It’s exciting that we now have a cohort of dedicated students who are taking advantage of their opportunity to change their lives by earning their degrees, and we’re looking forward to continuing our outreach in year two so that we can extend that opportunity to even more individuals.”

Sacramento State is one of seven California State University campuses serving as expansion sites for Project Rebound, originally established in 1967 at San Francisco State University, funded by a grant from the Opportunity Institute that recently has been renewed. The goal is simple: Reduce the number of formerly incarcerated individuals who return to prison by helping them get accepted to and graduate from four-year colleges and universities.

Project Rebound helps formerly incarcerated individuals get accepted to Sacramento State – or refers them to community college or other options if they do not yet meet academic requirements – then provides support and mentorship during their time on campus.

The results are striking and show the value of fresh opportunity: At SF State, 95 percent of Project Rebound students graduate, a far greater percentage than the overall student population. And in a state where as many as half of formerly incarcerated individuals return to prison, just 3 percent of Project Rebound graduates go back inside.

“Sometimes when you don’t know you have options, you end up choosing how you were taught. But having an education, it just opens up the world,” said Alton Williams, a Sacramento State alumnus, criminal justice studies lecturer, and Project Rebound program coordinator.

Student assistant Karessa Cohron, left, with program coordinator Alton Williams, says being part of Project Rebound has been "a wonderful experience." (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

“Even though you may have been inside or done some time, if you can say, ‘Since that time, I’ve gotten a B.A. or an M.A. or a Ph.D.,’ it can remove the stigma and give you a sense of pride and a sense of accomplishment.”

At one level, the support that Project Rebound provides is practical: tutoring, assisting in acquiring financial aid, or providing referrals to outside resources that can help with housing and other challenges. But Cohron says another benefit is being able to connect with people who have similar experiences, easing the isolation that formerly incarcerated individuals can feel on a campus.

Now the program’s student assistant, Cohron plays a big role in helping Project Rebound students feel connected. She’s often the first point of contact for an incarcerated or formerly incarcerated individual looking for more information, responding to letters or helping people interested in beginning the application process.

“We’re just people, and we have potential. There are things we did that are mistakes but shouldn’t define who we are going forward and keep us from being successful,” Cohron said.

“Education provides an alternative to incarceration, and it gives people hope that there are other options, and that there are people who want to support you and who care.” – Jonathan Morales