New President of Underground Scholars shares her past experiences with the carceral system and her future goals to support formerly incarcerated and system-impacted individuals through the advocacy, outreach and educational work being done by the Underground Scholars initiative.
Underground Scholars is a student organization that supports formerly incarcerated or system-impacted individuals through their advocacy, outreach and policy reform work.
Colleen Murphy, a first year transfer student and the new president of Underground Scholars, says that “in three short years, I went from living in my car on drugs to completely sober, happy, healthy, making intentional choices in my life to perpetuate this happiness and this holistic health.”
After past experiences involving alcoholism, drugs, and an arrest, Murphy is now an avid advocate for systemic reform when it comes to incarceration. In the future, she hopes to become a US senator. Currently, she is dedicated to the Underground Scholars initiative.
Murphy explains that the Underground Scholars initiative was founded at UC Berkeley in 2013 and has since opened chapters in all the other UC campuses.
“We’re just here on this campus trying to make a difference for other people who don’t realize that there are other options than continuing this lifestyle that they had,” Murphy told The UCSD Guardian. “The main point of the Underground Scholars Initiative is to create a prison-to-university pipeline.”
Although Underground Scholars is a student-led organization, UCSD offers institutional support in the form of funding, through another initiative called the Triton Underground Scholars. Murphy adds that the people participating in both initiatives and the activities they do are nearly identical, since both organizations work closely together.
On the UCSD campus, approximately 25 students have participated in Underground Scholars in some capacity, and 12 to 15 students are currently active members.
Murphy notes that the student organization is not specifically for formerly incarcerated students.
The initiative is also for system-impacted students —anyone who has been affected by incarceration in any way, such as a family member’s arrest —as well as “anyone who’s interested in policy reform or supporting a movement of equality and equity.”
An important aspect of Underground Scholars is outreach; for instance, they host workshops that are tailored to assist current community college students with their UC Transfer Application and resume development.
Murphy says that for meaningful, institutional changes to continue occurring, full-time positions are required. She believes that a full-time position will allow for more outreach —whether that takes place at community colleges or legislatures —and organization and eventual overall growth.
Additionally, Underground Scholars does advocacy work related to policy reform. In January of 2022, they are hosting a retreat in Sacramento to request consideration in the California budget and subsequent ongoing funding from the legislature. Currently, they plan to ask for four million dollars in the ongoing funding in the budget, and will know if this comes to fruition by approximately mid-2022.
According to Murphy, they have also been meeting with local representatives, and she specifically has also been working with the Fresh Start program, a department of the public defender, which helps formerly incarcerated people with the expungement process: clearing or reducing their records. She plans to educate and promote this process in January of 2022.
As a formerly incarcerated individual who has gotten her record expunged, Murphy wants to make sure that other people are also aware of these types of programs because “they’re free and they’re intended to help people move on from that previous life.”
For Colleen Murphy, her previous life began in a small rural town in San Bernardino County, near Joshua Tree National Park. After doing well in high school and graduating a year early, Murphy moved to San Diego in 2005 due to more economic and schooling opportunities to attend a local community college.
Murphy attended school and worked full-time to support herself, but moving away from home and her support systems was challenging. She began experiencing mental health issues, and eventually turned to alcohol and drugs as coping mechanisms.
At first, Murphy continued attending school and working as an investment broker at TD Ameritrade, but her mental health issues and substance abuse issues continued to persist.
During this time, Murphy was also involved in abusive relationships. Eventually, she ended up leaving her job, dropping out of school, and moving back to her hometown in 2008. After returning to her hometown, as a consequence of her unhealthy coping mechanisms, she ended up arrested.
Prior to her arrest, she was going through background checks and other processes required for employment. As soon as her potential employers were notified about her charges, they rescinded her offer of employment.
“That was just the beginning of the institutional and social barriers that were put up because of my arrest,” Murphy said. “Even before I was convicted on any of the charges, that job was taken away. The financial repercussions of being arrested are significant.”
The arrest made it impossible for Murphy to find gainful employment, which she explains perpetuated her dependence on unhealthy, abusive relationships and exacerbated poor mental health.
After years of going through this, in June 2018, Murphy decided she needed to break out of this cycle. She packed her car, took her two dogs, and moved back to San Diego.
Soon after she moved back, Murphy ended up in another abusive relationship. After suffering physical abuse from her then-partner, Murphy ended up in the hospital. At the hospital, a routine check-up led her to discover that she was pregnant.
Murphy decided that she needed to ask for help. She was living in her car at the time, so she sought refuge at a homeless shelter in downtown San Diego called the Alpha Project.
“When I came in there, I had nothing,” Murphy said. “When you’re homeless, you lose everything so quickly, because it’s just like, you have no way to maintain anything. It’s just a terrible, terrible thing. I can’t say how difficult it is, especially being a woman, to be homeless.”
During her time at the shelter, Murphy was able to finally take care of her physical and mental health and realign her priorities. She ended up getting housing through their programs, and her son was born in July of 2019.
When her son was six months old, Murphy went back to school and got a part-time job working as an insurance agent, and has been in school ever since.
“Through all of my trials and tribulations, education has been probably one of the most liberating forces in my life,” Murphy told The Guardian. “It’s been extremely empowering, working with groups like the Underground Scholars.”
In 2020, Murphy graduated with three associates degrees —a degree in psychology, a degree in sociology and a degree in university studies, social and behavioral sciences —from Grossmont Community College.
After receiving her degrees in 2020, Murphy applied to UCSD and was denied. Murphy appealed the decision, explaining that she was attempting to build a framework to help this demographic and that her voice was important, and got in on appeal.
At the time she came to UCSD, the majority of the Underground Scholars officers had recently graduated, so the officer team had multiple vacant positions.
Murphy was asked if she would be willing to fill the vacancy in the presidency of Underground Scholars. Since she had been doing similar type of work at Grossmont, she agreed to take on the position.
Her main goal through Underground Scholars is to help break down institutional barriers, so people who have made poor decisions in the past due to disadvantaged life circumstances can find a fulfilling life. She wants the “voices that have been quieted because of this carceral history” to be heard.
She also notes that mass incarceration is a systemic issue as well, and marginalized communities such as the Latinx and Black communities are disproportionately impacted by this issue.
Murphy says that although the university has been supportive of the Underground Scholars initiative, there is more that they could do to uplift the formerly incarcerated students demographic.
For instance, Murphy says that there could be the implementation of a project like Project Rebound, which is a program at the California State level that helps increase the number of formerly incarcerated students that are able to attend college by taking into consideration that they were formerly incarcerated during the application review process.
“I’m hoping that during my time here, that I will be able to reach out to the administration and see if there’s any way we can create that pipeline,” Murphy said. “I would really love to see that demographic given some sort of preference to come here because that is life changing. Education prevents recidivism, and recidivism is the tendency to reoffend and end up back in jail. When you start educating people, and giving them options other than the lives that were contributing to their incarceration, then the incarceration cycle stops.”
UCSD Faculty is also involved in this process of supporting formerly incarcerated and system-impacted individuals, namely through the cross enrollment process. Through the cross enrollment process, students at community colleges who identify as formerly incarcerated or are just interested in the topic can enroll in a UCSD course relating to the carceral system.
Murphy says that although all the formerly incarcerated individuals she has met have different experiences, education and its ability to liberate them has always been the common theme in their respective stories.
“This campus has become our platform for empowering others in this situation,” Murphy told The Guardian. “Anyone who’s been incarcerated, even people who are currently incarcerated,we’re reaching out to currently incarcerated people who are completing classes in prison. We want them to come here, we want them to know that there’s a place for them here so that when they get out, they can come and have education, because it’s such a liberating force.”
Art by Angela Liang for The UCSD Guardian.