Unconventional Berkeley Students: An Interview with Juan C. Flores

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The other day I had the honor of interviewing a friend and fellow student, Juan C. Flores. He was brave enough to open up; to talk about things that may be dark and uncomfortable; to be utterly candid and vulnerable. Juan is a UC Berkeley student unlike any other. He has faced adversities and circumstances that not many students on our campus have experienced. My intention with sharing this interview is simple: contest widely-held beliefs of what being a “student” means and challenge any preconceived notions about folks involved in the carceral system.

    I would like to make it clear that Juan has fully consented to my sharing this information publicly. I would also like to point out that this interview has only minor edits and no changes to the actual wording have been made. Preserving the authenticity and power behind his words was more important to me than turning in a polished and easily digestible redaction of what was said. Enjoy!

I’d like you to tell me about your experience as a transfer student. And what was the most difficult part about transitioning to UC Berkeley?

Juan: I think my experience has been amazing. I’ve been able to do things that I never even thought about. So, the thought of going to conferences in other places around the country never crossed my mind when coming to UC Berkeley or transferring here. You know, being able to do those things has exposed me to different thinking, like people who have different opinions. They’re educated, they’re culturally different. So, I’ve been exposed to that and I think my experience has been enriched because of that.

What’s been the most difficult part? Something that’s been really challenging about transitioning to this school.

Juan: You know, I don’t think I’m like any other transfer student because I stand out or I’m just self-conscious about me standing out. You know, I have many tattoos. So, that has been a challenge. I’ve been profiled here at Berkeley. I have been harassed by the police. I walk around Sproul Plaza. You know, when there’s just hella people around I just know that some of them stare at me. I see them stare at me. And maybe they’re appreciating the art, but I think when I look at them I notice those looks. I can tell they’re maybe wondering what I’m doing on campus. You know, maybe wondering if I am a student. So, my transition itself has been difficult. I mean that happened way before I even came to UC Berkeley. For one, I didn’t know how I was gonna pay for college. I had about a thousand dollars in my bank account from saving (chuckles)... and I worked and went to school full-time. Where was I gonna live? I don’t know. I missed the deadline for housing, so that wasn’t guaranteed. I called and I couldn’t get on-campus housing, so I went to search outside, obviously off-campus. And I ended up getting denied housing out of like six locations I went to look at. So I ended up applying to this apartment complex. Everything was good. However that place emailed me and they told me that I was denied housing because of my criminal record. So, before I even got to Berkeley, knowing that housing is an issue for many students… me on top of that, I have a criminal record that set me back a little.

Do you think that your life experiences have provided you with a unique perspective that other UC Berkeley students may not have?

Juan: Ah  yes. I do have a unique perspective that many students don’t have at UC Berkeley. You know, my major is Sociology and we talk about all these social issues that happen around the world and even, specifically, in the United States, and especially communities of color. And I come from that community. You know, my dad was deported when I was thirteen. My mom used to work a dead-end job. The best shoes I had in middle school, high school were from the flea market or Payless. So, you know, we grew up poor. I remember going with my mom on the bus to go get free food at the local churches or places where they gave out food for people who needed it. So, that’s one of my experiences. My house was what you would call a crack house. Well, my dad didn’t sell crack. He sold crystal meth. So, there was always movement 24/7. I thought at one point my dad was superman because he wouldn’t sleep. You know, obviously I found out later why. But my perspective comes from, you know like struggles, overcoming obstacles, whether it was drug addiction, homelessness, being hopeless, incarcerated, or being from a neighborhood which they call “gang.” I know for sure probably most students here at UC Berkeley haven’t experienced that. You know, being targeted by police officers, being exposed to shootings; whether it’s a viewing or a funeral; seeing your homeboy get stabbed or shot. Having a reminder of having homies and people that you’ve lost whether it’s been by overdose or gun violence has basically made me view life different. I know being here at Berkeley that I’m already winning, so if I were to pass tomorrow, I feel like I already made it.

So, I know that you’re apart of the Underground Scholars Initiative and I’ve spoken to some friends and students around campus and not a lot of people seem to know what this program is or that it even exists on our campus and I think it is an important program to know about, so if you could, I’d like you to talk a little bit about your involvement with USI and kind of what the program’s mission is.

Juan: It’s a student-led organization. I’m the co-chair of that organization and what we do is we provide resources for formerly incarcerated students here on campus and system-impacted students. So, formerly incarcerated students are people who did time behind bars. And system-impacted is someone who hasn’t been incarcerated but has been impacted by incarceration through a family member, more likely an immediate family member. So, as an Underground Scholar co-chair, I organize certain events. The Underground Scholars mission is basically to provide a space for our students that are formerly incarcerated or system-impacted but not only that. Our mission extends to the larger community. For example, we have a letter-writing program ran by two of our coordinators in that program and they make suggestions to students who are currently incarcerated. What the Underground Scholar does is help them and suggest what classes to take so when they get out, then they can enroll in higher education. We have like a transfer empowerment day where we fly in or individuals drive up here to UC Berkeley and we have a day event that is specifically tailored for them. We have individuals from UC Berkeley go over their personal statements and give them feedback. We have financial aid. We talk about scholarships. We talk about housing.We talk about a lot of things that students may not know because these are not traditional students. We’re basically building that prison to school pipeline. In addition to that we do a lot of policy and advocacy work. That’s my position. I’m the policy and advocacy coordinator. For example, USI has banned the box from the UC system statewide. That was probably before I got here. We support a lot of legislation. For example SB-1391, we supported that. That bill would ban the possibility of fourteen and fifteen year-olds to be tried as adults. The SB… I think it was SB or AB bill 277… that bill was for people who, as soon as they paroled, would get credit or time off their parole sentence. So, sometimes when you get out on parole, you have three years parole or probation. So, if this person is going to school, that means they get credit for going to school so they have less time on supervision. We supported that bill as well.

So, do you think that UC Berkeley or the UC system as a whole could be doing more to help formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students? If you do think that’s the case, what would you suggest, or what do you see that still needs to be worked on?

Juan: UC Berkeley can be doing more for the students. For example, USI pays for its own space. So even though we’ve institutionalized USI still pretty much pays its space for being on campus even though we’re part of the system now. They could give us a space. They can also help us by hiring more individuals who can focus on this work, like the advocacy and policy work or the transfer empowerment day or having students being helped while they’re incarcerated to help them get out and then hopefully go into higher education. This is all work that is done by students. Nothing is done by the UC system or UC Berkeley, though we fall under it.

It seems to me unfair. We have these students coming to an institution where maybe they weren’t prepared, community college didn’t prepare them, or while they were incarcerated they didn’t prepare them enough for this rigorous institution. Instead of having us work and do a lot of what we do maybe the UC system can provide some employees to help out. As students I feel, me personally, I can barely juggle this institution and trying to be more hands on with things like work, like USI. It’s more stress and it’s more pressure and when individuals don’t have that support from staff and faculty, students can’t or are unable to do as good as they can. Everything else is paid for by the grants that USI members have received.

This program is specific to UC Berkeley right now right?

Juan: Correct. So this program is just specifically in UC Berkeley. However, we’ve managed to have individuals start little chapters at UC Riverside, UC Irvine. We have another one in UCLA and we’re trying to have another one at UC Davis, Santa Cruz, obviously UC Santa Barbara. And I think, I’m hoping, one in San Diego. So, all the UC schools. There’s a lot of people that have taken classes while they were incarcerated who are now coming home, so having space for these individuals is important and crucial for individual success. So, I would urge UC Berkeley maybe to talk to the UC system and implement this program throughout the state of California. Our acceptance rates for everybody that we’ve helped has been a hundred percent acceptance rate to a UC school. At least half for sure have gotten into UC Berkeley.

So, given what you now know and your current position as a UC Berkeley student, what wisdom would you share with a young person involved in the carceral system or someone that’s system-impacted?

Juan: I think the words of encouragement would be something that’s cliche. Don’t give up, you know, things will get better. But maybe even continue to seek knowledge, right. Grab a book. Start reading. The first book I read was... my homeboy gave it to me underneath my cell door and I started reading it and I found out (chuckles) that I actually enjoyed reading. I think there is hope for a lot of us individuals who are incarcerated or are facing issues that will end up maybe incarcerating us. That’s basically it. Move forward. Don’t give up. Don’t lose hope. And obviously I’m gonna say continue your education and I promise you that the world will never be the same for you. There’s a lot of good things that come with education.

If anyone is interested in learning more about the Underground Scholars Initiative and the impactful work they do, I will link their website below: https://undergroundscholars.berkeley.edu/

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