In this article, Shawn Khalifa, Communications Coordinator for the UCI Underground Scholars Program, narrates how the power of education helped him discover his potential and changed his life. Told in the third-person, Shawn recounts how he overcame a difficult childhood and wrongful incarceration to become a UCI student and educational advocate for those impacted by the criminal justice system.

Shawn Khalifa grew up in a difficult environment. His mother, Colleen, grew sick of hearing mothers collapse on the floor of their workspace crying about their sons either being killed in gang warfare or being arrested for murder. She made the decision to flee the gang violence in Los Angeles. After surviving a traumatic night during the Rodney King Riots, in which a neighbor was killed by the national guard, she decided to settle in Perris, California. Although she moved 70 miles away, she decided to keep her job in Los Angeles.

Tragically, Shawn’s father, Hamdi, was deported to Egypt, and after re-entering the country, was arrested for burglary carried out to support his heroin addiction. With his mother commuting to Los Angeles and his father in prison, Shawn was left to raise himself. From the second grade on, he refused to do any school work and often found himself banned from the playground. By the seventh grade, Shawn was expelled from three schools, including a continuation and probation school. Facing bullies in school and exposure to gang activity in his neighborhood, Shawn found himself caught up in drug use and gang involvement. By the age of 15, he had been arrested and sentenced to life in prison for a crime he did not commit.

However, Shawn’s story didn’t end there. While awaiting trial in juvenile hall, he started to turn his life around by earning his high school diploma. But because Shawn had turned 18 prior to earning his high school diploma, his graduation led to his transfer to the adult system. One of the scariest moments of Shawn’s life came when the cell door closed behind him for the first time in Pelican Bay State Prison’s level 4 180 B-Yard. While he had survived violence and high security institutions in the past, there was something different about being locked inside of a concrete tomb where everyone around him was sentenced to life in prison as well. It solidified his perspective that he didn’t want to be condemned to a life of gang banging and fighting for his life.

It wasn’t until 13 years into his incarceration that Shawn  was given the opportunity to attend Southwestern Community College through the Restorative Justice Program, which provided in-person college courses that give incarcerated individuals the chance to further their education and better their prospects upon release. 

Halfway through his associate’s degree, Shawn received the life-changing news that the “Felony Murder Rule” had changed, leading to his resentencing and eventual release. Unfortunately, once released, Shawn faced instant homelessness as parole mandated that he return to Riverside County, a place where he no longer had family or friends. It was thanks to a prison volunteer named Rob Bird, who worked as a Reentry Liaison at the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, that Shawn was able transfer his parole to San Diego County and find housing there. This move allowed him to complete the rest of his college courses, and he was able to graduate with his associate’s degree in sociology from Southwestern College. 

Shawn went on to attend San Diego State University, where he became a member of Project Rebound, a program that provides guidance and support to formerly incarcerated individuals in higher education. In 2022, Shawn transferred to the University of California, Irvine (UCI) as a sociology major and drama minor. At UCI, he became involved with the UCI Underground Scholars Program and the UCI LIFTED program at Donovan State Prison’s Echo facility.

Shawn’s story is a testament to the effects of deportation and youth incarceration on individuals and their families. According to a study by the Migration Policy Institute, the deportation of a parent can lead to negative outcomes for children, including emotional trauma, economic hardship, and disrupted education. Additionally, the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on young people of color has been well documented, with research showing that youth incarceration can lead to a cycle of recidivism and limited opportunities upon release.

However, programs like the Restorative Justice Program at Southwestern Community College, Project Rebound, and Underground Scholars provide a path to redemption and a second chance for those who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. By offering education and support, we can break the cycle of recidivism and give individuals like Shawn an opportunity to contribute to society and make a positive impact. 

Help us ensure the past doesn’t define the future for students like Shawn. Join us in supporting formerly incarcerated individuals in their journey toward a more brilliant future. Take action today and support higher education for formerly incarcerated individuals.

To get involved, contact Hector Cervantes, Director of the UCI Underground Scholars Program, and learn how you can support system-impacted students on campus. To support UCI’s efforts to offer educational opportunities to incarcerated individuals, check out UCI LIFTED here.



Migration Policy Institute. (n.d.). The Impact of Parental Deportation on Children. Retrieved February 13, 2023, from

The Sentencing Project. (n.d.). Youth Incarceration. Retrieved February 13, 2023, from

Southwestern College. (n.d.). Restorative Justice Program. Retrieved February 13, 2023, from

Project Rebound. (n.d.). About Project Rebound. Retrieved February 13, 2023, from