Ambassador Program


Dmitriy Orlov

American River College

My journey to higher education began in San Quentin State Prison. I was sent to prison to serve close to seven years; I did not expect to leave prison with a desire to continue my education that I was able to start while I was inside. This is because I was never a good student, always struggled and never enjoyed school as I grew up. Although I completed high school and even attempted some college before prison, at that point, I was already a convicted felon and did not see a future in college.  At the time of my incarceration, San Quentin had the only in-class college degree-granting program in CDCR; I enrolled. Classes were challenging, and instructors kept high expectations for the students. As I passed from one course to the next, I developed confidence in myself as a student. Today, I identify as a student and not an ex-felon. I want to help others have the same opportunity to experience education for themselves.


Batya Brose

Berkeley City College

Two years ago I was sitting in Cherry Hill Detox trying to figure out whether to be clean or continue using and terrorizing the streets of Richmond. The courts offered me a plea deal so I took it and I have been clean ever since. By being drug-free, I was able to complete the requirements and programs ordered by the courts. Once I finished, I decided to go to school and begin the journey of getting my degree in Psychology. I have now been clean for two-years and currently work in two residential treatment centers and am part of Berkeley Underground Scholars.



Paul Briley

Berkeley City College

I graduated high school in Juvenile Hall. Several counselors noticed my potential and talked to me about college. I never considered pursuing higher education after high school. I would have just been satisfied with receiving a diploma. At that time, my best friend Robert O’Bryant was my cellmate and I remember coming back to the room talking to him about college. It was a weird topic to talk about because all we did was get in trouble. I will never forget his words when he said, ”funny enough bro, I actually could see you going to college.” I am saddened to say that was one of our last conversations since he was killed shortly after. He believed in me and gave me motivation to pursue higher education. Ironically enough, the person who gave me the bad news about him passing was the same person who told me about Underground Scholars. I am certain that it was a message from him and I’ve never looked back since.


Irsyad Sja

Berkeley City College

I am a system-impacted student now based out of Berkeley, California. I have moved more than twice the amount of times an average military family would. I've essentially been an independent student since my last two-years of high school. As a result, I've grown an appreciation for programs that assist folks who are independent, low-income, or fall under other unique categories. My goal is to utilize the inside knowledge of institutions and systems currently in place that I've obtained in the last 6 years to help students from marginalized groups. Regardless of a person's background, I want to be the help that I was not able to find for the majority of my academic career.


Phillip Pierini

Laney College

After deciding that doing life in prison on the installment plan was not working for me and finding my health was failing, I decided enough was enough and enrolled in school just as a diversion. After reading an article while on Bart one day about Underground Scholars and then running into co-founder Steven Czifra at Laney community college, I decided school truly was a serious option for me. I then began my full time quest to educate myself and help my demographic at the same time.



Lamar Bursey

Laney College

I began community college in the Fall of 2016 at Laney in Oakland, California. In Spring 2017, I joined Underground Scholars and began working as an Ambassador; identifying formerly incarcerated students on campus and providing them with resources to successfully transfer to UC Berkeley or other UC’s.  I am pursuing an Associates in Sociology and am working towards transferring to a University of California to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology.


Jemal Taylor

Merritt College

Growing up in Oakland California and participating in gang activities led to over 14yrs. of incarceration. I found my purpose through education and Underground Scholars. Being the 2017-2018 ambassador of Merritt College has given me the opportunity to do outreach and be an agent of change in the prison-to-school pipeline.


Elisabeth Ocampo

College of San Mateo

I a mother of two, a student ambassador at College of San Mateo and a student leader in Project Change. I was born and raised in Redwood City, California where at a young age I became involved in gangs which resulted in incarceration both in juvenile and adult system. After getting my GED and being part of the workforce for several years, I enrolled in community college where I was able to reinvent myself. I am currently pursuing a degree in Business and hope to continue working for my people.


Fernando Rivera

Evergreen Valley College

I am a 42-year-old father, husband, and grandfather, who have experienced many hardships in life that most people have not. Now that I have returned to school after 15 years, I would like to share these stories, as a counselor for juvenile hall. As I provide guidance, it will help those with similar experiences understand that there is someone they can relate to. I will be graduating next semester with an A.A. in Sociology and a A.S. in Administration of Justice from Evergreen Valley College. I look forward to continuing my education at UC Berkeley while simultaneously doing outreach with Berkeley Underground Scholars.


Gergory Merritt

Modesto Junior College

I am a formerly incarcerated student at Modesto Junior College pursuing a double major in Political Science and Legal Studies. My ultimate goal is to become a lawyer so that I can assist low-income people in getting justice while attempting to change the justice system from the inside.


Tomas Alejandrez

Cabrillo Community College

Back in 2015 I was pushing a shopping cart and calling that home. It’s now 2018 and now I push books. I found myself on the UC Berkeley campus as a guest back in August 2017. I am chipping away at my community college to get to Berkeley where it feels like home, thanks to Underground Scholars.



Alberto Lule

Santa Barbara Community College

After paroling in May, 2016 after doing 13 years, I knew the first thing to do was get back in school. While in prison, I was taking classes through Palo Verde College Program, and I knew education was going to be my salvation. After 3 semesters of full-time enrollment at Santa Barbara City College, I have become eligible to TAG to UCSB and have recently applied to UC Berkeley as well.


James Tompkins

Bakersfield College

I paroled in 2013 with little idea of what I was going to do with my life. That changed when I was shown the possibilities of what an education could afford. I realized that working with folks like myself can have an impact by utilizing education as a weapon to break down systems designed to oppress and commoditize people’s lives. I now work within the community demonstrating the possibilities education can create among similar communities I came from. My goal is to obtain a PHD in Psychology and use it to affect policy and help people with similar backgrounds succeed within a broken system.


Cesar Ramon Garcia

San Diego City College

I am a student worker at San Diego City College where I advocate for formerly incarcerated students at San Diego City College. After my last run-in with the criminal justice system, I decided to invest time in my educational dream. Today, I am majoring in Political Science and plan to transfer to a University of California where I plan on doing research about the criminal justice system. My goal is to go into public policy to help marginalized communities better navigate the political and social institutions in this country.


Ryan Rising

San Diego City College

Since the day I paroled from New Folsom State Prison, I have been working hard on changing the narrative of my destiny using college as a way out of the prison system and a life of incarceration; I have been able to achieve and accomplish so much thus far. In addition, I am supporting other folks coming home by illustrating how college is a vehicle to success which can lift you away from a destructive way of life. I will be completing my Associate degree in Behavioral Sciences and hope to transfer to Berkeley to attain a Bachelor's degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. ”Life is what we make it.”