James Cavitt has had a dream of walking across the college stage as a graduate since he was 8.
His path to college took some twists — he was incarcerated for 22 years — but on Sunday he graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He plans to enter a master’s program in social work at Cal State Long Beach in the fall.
Cavitt was one of seven graduates celebrated at a May 15 Project Rebound banquet and awards ceremony at Cedar Creek Inn in Brea. The program, which has an office in Langsdorf Hall at CSUF, supports the higher education and successful integration of formerly incarcerated students.
“They created the path and I walked it,” said Cavitt, who is housing coordinator for the program, a facilitator and trainer with Inside Prison Project and a facilitator for youth groups at Project Kinship. “It is a privilege and an honor for me to have those who had my back all this time to share the day with me.”
Project Rebound graduate Charles Fagan, bachelor’s in Human Services; Jerry Hunter, former chancellor for North Orange County Community Colleges and a program mentor; and graduate James Cavitt, bachelor’s in sociology, at the gradution and awards banquet on May 15. (Photo Courtesy Project Rebound)
CSUF’s Project Rebound celebrated its graduates at a May 15 awards banquet at Cedar Creek Inn in Brea. From left, top row: Brady Heiner, project founder and executive director; graduate Charles Fagan; Julie Virjee; Romarilyn Ralston, program director; graduate Shantal Victoria Lopez and CSUF President Fram Virjee. Front row, from left, graduates James Cavitt and Mir Aminy. (Photo courtesy Project Rebound)
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Brady Heiner, an associate professor of philosophy who founded the program at CSUF in 2016, shared some of its successes in the past year at the ceremony, attended by students — known as Project Rebound Scholars — and their families, CSUF President Fram Virjee and his wife, Julie, as well as staff and supporters.
The program started with four students and now has 44, he said. The overall GPA in fall was 3.3 — compared with the student body as a whole at 2.9. Project Rebound students have earned a 3.0 nearly every semester since the program began.
“One hundred percent of our graduates have secured jobs or enrolled in post-graduate programs,” Heiner said, to cheers and clapping from the audience.
And of the 400 students at the nine CSU campuses that have Project Rebound, including CSUF, no one has gone back to prison, he said.
“I think the work we do demonstrates that cultivated care and community is all that it takes to ensure folks’ success,” he said. “Our students come out with an immense amount of tenacity, an immense amount of grit. Part of what we provide in Project Rebound is a community of support and a culture of belonging that allows our students to flourish.”
He attributed much of that success to the advocacy of students and Project Rebound staff, particularly Romarilyn Ralston, program director, in getting the word out about the program and its benefits.
The May revise in the state budget includes a $1 million ongoing annual allocation for Project Rebound, he said.
Also this year, Associated Students Inc. passed a resolution providing $10,000 in annual scholarship funds to support Project Rebound students and other formerly incarcerated students.
In addition, the John Irwin Memorial House, which opened in August 2018 and houses up to six Project Rebound students, has become the heart of community building for the program, Heiner said. It’s the first collegiate reentry housing initiative in the country.
But the purpose of the event was to celebrate the graduates.
“Thank you for welcoming me into your home, for welcoming me into your hearts and for welcoming me on the journey you’ve been engaged in,” Fram Virjee told the graduates. “Everyone talks and talks about how we transform lives. But in my short time at CSUF, I’ve seen the walking of the walk instead of the talking the talk with the Project Rebound Scholar program.”
Here is a list of the Project Rebound graduates who were honored at the event:
Mir Aminy is graduating with a bachelor’s in sociology. He received the NASPA Undergraduate Fellowship, the John Irwin Memorial Scholarship, as well as the 2019 Steward of Place Award from the CSUF Center for Internships and Community Engagement and the Tuffy’s Award for Titans Leaving Their Legacies. Aminy starts a master’s program in student development in higher education at Cal State Long Beach in the fall.
Karen Benevides is graduating with a bachelor’s in Criminal Justice. She received the John Irwin Memorial Scholarship and is an active member of the Criminal Justice Honors Society and the Criminal Justice Student Association. Benavides was awarded a university scholarship to study abroad in South Africa this summer.
James Cavitt is a recipient of the John Irwin Memorial Scholarship for Academic Excellence and the Project Rebound Outstanding Leadership Award.
Charles Fagan graduates with a bachelor’s in Human Services. He was an intern with Project Rebound and a mentor for incoming students and residents of the John Irwin House. He received the John Irwin Memorial Scholarship and is employed as a substance abuse counselor in Santa Ana.
Shantal Victoria Lopez is graduating with a bachelor’s in Chicano and Chicana Studies, achieving the distinction of Dean’s List in spring and fall 2018. She received the John Irwin Memorial Scholarship and is a member of the Alpha Sigma Lambda Honor Society. She plans to do graduate school in Mexico.
Coleman Pickell is graduating with a bachelor’s of science in kinesiology
Christopher Owens is graduating with a bachelor in business administration with an emphasis in finance.
Lopez, who Heiner described as having “a big heart and a humble disposition,” said the combination of Project Rebound and her work in ethnic studies were key to her success.
“It helped me actually learn that our experiences as formerly incarcerated students do matter,” she told the audience. “It proves that we can challenge the dominant narrative. … We all have very different backgrounds and experiences, and these experiences combined in a safe space have made really great stories.”
At the end of the ceremony, Ralston handed out the annual Project Rebound awards to students.
Aminy won the Community Service and Engagement Award. Cavitt won the Academic Excellence Award. Ginny Oshiro won the Outstanding Leadership Award. And new program member Jorge Alvarado won the Phoenix Award for rising scholars.
“We have some really outstanding students and scholars in our program,” Ralston said before handing out the awards. “The work they have done this semester and since they joined Project Rebound has really helped the program to grow.”
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