The UCI Underground Scholars Program creates a pathway for incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and system impacted individuals into higher education.

The UCI Underground Scholars Program creates a pathway for incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and system impacted individuals into higher education.

We prioritize our services for formerly incarcerated students. We define system-impacted as a person who is legally, economically, or familially affected in a negative way by the incarceration of a close relative. System-impacted also includes people who have been arrested and/or convicted without incarceration.

Underground Scholars Initiative (USI) is the student org that works in partnership with the UCI Underground Scholars Program which is lead and run by UCI staff. USI is completely student-run. The two organizations are separate and aligned. To learn more information on USI at UCI click here.



We provide support to incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, and system impacted students by conducting outreach events, supporting them through community college, preparing them for the UC, sharing educational resources on how to apply to UCI, coaching them through the UC application process, offering campus tours, and workshops to navigate the education system.  


Our retention program provides formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students with a space on campus to meet and study, academic tutoring and advising, peer coaching, leadership development, student employment, community events, and workshops on how to navigate UCI. 


We advocate for currently and formerly incarcerated students and their families. In addition to individual advocacy for students on campus and on parole/probation, we engage in local, state, and national policy advocacy to remove barriers and create opportunity for currently and formerly incarcerated people. We also train formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students to be policy advocates.

History of the Program

In 2018, the Underground Scholars Initiative (USI) student organization was established at UCI. After three years of providing their peers with support services, USI was able to advocate for the establishment of a program. In October of 2021, the UCI Underground Scholars Program was established.

Get Involved and Stay in Touch

For questions, please contact Hector Cervantes at hcervan1@uci.edu. We look forward to hearing from you. 


Hector Cervantes, Director
Hector Cervantes’s work focuses on providing services to students directly and indirectly impacted by the justice system and advocating for broader criminal justice reform. Having experienced both incarceration and higher education, Hector uses this unique combination of life experiences to combat the pervasiveness of carceral system effects and to work to increase access to the university for justice-impacted persons. While completing his undergraduate and graduate studies here at UCI, Cervantes set out to help build a prison-to-school pipeline within his community.

Cervantes received his Bachelor of Arts in History and Master of Urban and Regional Planning at UCI. Raised in nearby Santa Ana, Calif., Cervantes continues to strengthen his ties to UCI and surrounding communities. In 2017, as a Policy Advocacy Fellow with Human Rights Watch, Cervantes participated in a statewide effort to pass California Senate Bill 1391. In 2018, this bill was signed into law by former Governor Jerry Brown, ending the practice of sentencing 14 and 15-year-olds as adults.

In 2018, Cervantes was part of a group effort to establish the Underground Scholars Initiative at the University of California, Irvine (USI at UCI), a student group for formerly incarcerated and system impacted students. USI at UCI hosts events to raise awareness of formerly incarcerated students, and to provide information for community college students interested in attending UCI. Most importantly, the group continues to provide a safe space that fosters growth and empowerment amongst formerly incarcerated and system impacted students on campus.

Beto, Outreach/Inreach Coordinator

Alberto Lule is currently an MFA candidate at UC Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts. Alberto is formerly incarcerated, he was paroled from a California prison in 2016 after 13 years of incarceration. Lule recently graduated from UCLA with a Bachelor’s degree in Art and a Minor in Visual and Performing Arts Education. Lule’s leadership role at UCLA was being co-chair of The Underground Scholars Initiative Student Organization and Outreach coordinator for the Bruin Underground Scholars Program at UCLA. Currently, Lule has been named one of the Outreach/Inreach Coordinators for The Underground Scholars Program at UC Irvine.

Jennifer, Retention Coordinator
When you grow up with violence it becomes tolerable, you adapt, and become desensitized. Growing up, I never wanted to be at home. At 13, after going to a backyard party with my older brother, his friend was shot in the car sitting next to me. My first boyfriend was shot 2 years later and died.  Violence has always been a part of my life beginning at home and continuing as an adult. I am a single mother of two kids with both fathers in and out of prisons. I did my best to avoid reality with drugs which led to my criminal convictions of multiple felonies and misdemeanors and multiple jail sentences over a 15 year period.

In sharing a little about myself, I hope I can bring hope to anyone who has ever felt like no one ever loved them or to anyone who is alone in their struggle to find peace. Do not give up, never give up on yourself. I started at the bottom and have failed many times. My attempt to “rejoin” society was extremely difficult, but my education has transformed my life in so many ways. UCI welcomed me as a student despite my background and gave me a chance to rebuild my life by moving to on-campus housing. Underground scholars gave me a space to be me and to support others students with similar backgrounds of incarceration, addiction, and trauma. If I can do it, so can you!

Heile Gantan, Policy Fellow

Heile Gantan is a researcher, policy advocate, and proud member of USI at UCI. Her background in nutrition and experience with the California Department of Corrections motivates her policy advocacy work to improve the provisions of basic resources throughout jails and prisons. In her advocacy efforts, she works closely with civic and state organizations to support reentry and therefore reduce recidivism for returning citizens. She is also a 2022 policy fellow with USI where she advocates for state-derived support for the organization as well as working to reform parole conditions that prioritize higher education.

Heile obtained her B.S. in nutrition with a double minor in business administration and marketing from California State University, Sacramento. She is currently a candidate for the Master of Public Policy program at the University of California, Irvine with a special focus on health equity and justice.


UC Irvine program helps former inmates navigate college

Hector Cervantes was 8 years old when he was first put in handcuffs for shoplifting. A few years later, he was arrested for the first time on suspicion of drunk driving.

“That really sparked my entrance into the criminal justice system,” he said during a phone interview. “I was put on probation. And then shortly after that began my trajectory through the criminal justice system. I was arrested for things like not going to school, for vandalism, not being able to pay my DUI fines.”

The Santa Ana native and his four siblings were raised by a single mother. So he contends that many of his negative experiences were conditions of poverty, including his yearlong stint in a California prison for possession of controlled substances.


“Underground Scholars does more than provide a support community to formerly incarcerated students on campus. They work to educate the campus community about the perspectives of and challenges faced by formerly incarcerated studentsread more

Keramet Reiter

Professor, UCI Social Ecology

“Underground Scholars provides a critical voice and support for our students here are UCI who are formerly justice-system-involved.”

Katie Tinto

Professor, UCI Law School

As I awaited my decision from UCI’s admissions office in 2018, I received my second DUI and was jailed multiple times for fighting, public intoxication, and disturbing the peace. As a result, I began part of my first quarter at UCI on house arrest and spent some nights in jail. This made me feel as though I did not belong on campus. Fortunately, I met Hector from the Underground Scholars Initiative (USI) in the first weeks of the 2018 fall quarter before I began my house arrest, and he made me understand that the struggles that I had overcome up to that point made me deserving of the opportunity to study at UCI, for I had prevailed over barriers that other students would have faltered over. His sentiments struck me, and I gained comfort in knowing that there were people with a similar background on campus—I was not alone. … read more.

Jesus Adan

UCI Student

“UC Irvine was a totally different encounter from my community college experience. Honestly, it has its pros and cons but just the simple fact that I had gotten as far as I did makes me appreciate the campus a lot more.

My experience at UC Irvine turned phenomenally more fulfilling after I found the Underground Scholars of UC Irvine, I felt like I was at home again.

Words cannot explain the feeling inside of me when I met the men and women that genuinely understand my struggles due to their own personal experiences. … read more.”

Ester Mendez

UCI Student