The confetti poppers exploded and a tissue-paper storm showered the dozens of graduates at Fresno State’s Department of Social Work Education commencement Friday morning.
Arnold Trevino, 51, of Strathmore also had a few rainbow-colored paper shreds dotting his ebony graduation gown here and there, and a couple of pieces got caught on the honor-student’s medallions. But he paid them no mind. He was too busy hugging his classmates as they put the last flourish on a series of celebrations.
Enjoying the party in the stands of Woodward Park’s sun-speckled Rotary Amphitheater were more than 20 of Arnold’s family members, some traveling from as far away as Utah and Arizona. In the front row sat his mother, Guadalupe Trevino.
Her eyes filled with tears when the ceremony ended and she was asked how she felt. At first, she couldn’t speak.
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“His father,” she whispered. “His father …”
Lupe’s husband of 55 years, Armando, died last month at age 85, just missing this moment by a few weeks.
Arriving at this point in my life is truly a miracle.
Arnold Trevino, ex-con who graduated from Fresno State on Friday
Another emotional audience member of Arnold’s team was Jennifer Leahy, program director for Project Rebound, which supports formerly incarcerated people negotiating college life at Fresno State.
These were the project’s first graduates, and she couldn’t snap enough photos of the four pioneers wearing red and white “Rebound Scholars” stoles: David Richmond, Pamela Sango Madison, Christina Valtierra and Arnold.
“These four individuals,” Leahy said, “are representative of how education can change lives. All have worked hard to achieve their success and we could not be more proud of them. They continue to strive to improve their lives, the lives of their families and the quality of their communities.
“They will continue to be a part of our cohort, encouraging and helping others to reach their academic and personal goals of success. Arnold and David will continue into the master’s in social work program in the fall and I look forward to future graduations as more Rebound Scholars obtain their goals.”
It was also a defining day for Emma Hughes, associate professor and chair of the Department of Criminology. She was instrumental in getting the program started.
“All of the graduates can play an instrumental part in helping Project Rebound live up to its ‘each one teach one’ motto,” she said. “I am very excited for the graduates and for the new paths that lie ahead.”
Project Rebound’s inspiration
Project Rebound replicates a successful program started in 1967 by John Irwin, whose obituary describes him as a gas-station robber who did five years in Soledad Prison. He was a man with two choices: do more time or remake his life. He wisely decided education was a better route, and he got his degree in sociology from UCLA. Irwin made his life’s work guiding convicts to better lives.
He was hired at San Francisco State and taught there until retiring in 1994, along the way earning his doctorate at UC Berkeley in 1969. During his time at San Francisco State, he designed Project Rebound to give hope to former inmates that they could succeed outside prison.
The state’s most recent analysis shows that about 44 percent of inmates released from California prisons in 2010 were back behind bars within three years. Among Project Rebound participants, just 3 percent re-offended.
The graduation rates for the project are impressive as well, with more than 95 percent of Rebound scholars graduating in the past decade. The university’s overall graduation rate is closer to 50 percent.
Last summer, Fresno State became one of eight CSU campuses adopting the San Francisco State model. The expansion makes the program accessible to 70 percent of individuals monitored by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Arnold’s story: booze, a fight, prison
Arnold Trevino’s story is a study in life-changing tragedy, hope and persistence. After getting drunk at a party in Porterville and stabbing another guy in a fight, he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 16 years to life.
For years, his world was all about surviving prison life. There was rare time spent outside, and even then it was steel and concrete.
It wasn’t until he was transferred from Folsom to Tracy that he saw hope. He saw trees again, flowers and open blue sky.
“I saw kids on skateboards,” he said, “grandmas walking around. I had forgotten the world existed.”
It was his epiphany. Now he had a dream and a goal: Do everything he could “to get back into society.”
I never thought I would ever make it out of prison, much less graduate from a university.
Arnold Trevino, ex-con who graduated from Fresno State on Friday
For Trevino, that meant taking classes and keeping his record clean. He caught on fast, learning five trades and earning both a GED and associates degrees. He was among the first inmates to take a Braille transcription program at Avenal State Prison.
Most importantly, he learned a lot about himself. He saw the pattern of his life going wrong whenever alcohol or drugs were involved. Along with the academic courses, he went to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He became a sober man.
Undaunted toward his goal, though never certain when or if he would be released, he appeared 10 times before the parole board. He caught a break when Gov. Jerry Brown’s orders to address prison overcrowding were on everyone’s mind and Trevino was paroled. He has continued to work, learn and stay straight.
All that led him to Friday, where his family was excited to see a man they had worried so much about become a role model.
“My uncle has truly inspired me to continue reaching new heights in my life,” said his niece, Katina. “Seeing how his determination and motivation has landed him here, graduating with a bachelor’s in social work is truly something to look up to. My uncle, coming this far, proves people really can change. As long as they push and strive hard enough, anything is possible.”
And Trevino? He’s going to keep marching forward.
“Arriving at this point in my life is truly a miracle,” he said. “I never thought I would ever make it out of prison, much less graduate from a university. Earning this bachelor’s degree in social work will help those who are on parole and those who are paroling know that change is possible.
“I am honored to stand next to the many other parolees who have graduated before me, those who are graduating with me, and those who will graduate after me. These are my brothers and sisters who have helped, helping, and will help in fading the ‘once one always one’ stigma. The power of education is indisputable.”
Gail Marshall: 559-441-6680
For more information, contact Jennifer Leahy at email@example.com