Students at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria are off and running on a new semester, but a handful of those students have a shared background you may not expect.
"I went from an inmate to a straight-A student in less than six months," said Kaden Bedard, who is in his first semester at Hancock.
"I was born and raised here in Santa Maria and I would always pass by Hancock and I would think it would be awesome to be a student, but I always thought that it wasn't a place for someone like me," added Andrew Del Rio, president of the college's B.I.G.E. Club.
B.I.G.E. stands for Beyond Incarceration Greater Education, and club faculty advisor Lynn Becerra-Valencia tells KSBY that in the past two years, club membership has more than tripled.
"I have been faculty advisor for six and a half years and it has been inspiring to see students start here, and as the saying goes, 'Allan Hancock College, start here, go anywhere,' and B.I.G.E. is an example," she said.
Club founder Cheech Raygoza is now in his first year at UC Berkeley. Other formerly incarcerated students at Hancock say B.I.G.E. has set them on the same path.
"I got my AS degree in human services addiction studies, and I am now majoring in sociology and will be transferring to Chico State in the fall," said Griselda Martinez, B.I.G.E.'s treasurer.
"My goal here at Allan Hancock College is to get an associate degree in auto technology. So I will spend my two years here at Hancock, slipping in some business classes because I hope to transfer to a four-year university," Bedard said.
He says the club also helped him find transitional housing in Santa Maria after he was released from jail this past December.
Becerra-Valencia, meanwhile, adds that along with their bi-weekly club meetings, the group also gets out in the community.
"Our students do outreach in juvenile hall as an instructor. We have instructors in Northern Branch Jail. Our outreach is connected to serving our incarcerated youth and adults and really articulating a pathway home," she added.
Club members we spoke to said their histories of incarceration left them feeling like they didn't belong when they first started college, but Del Rio wants those in similar situations to know they have a home at Hancock.
"The B.I.G.E. Club is a comfort zone for people like us that struggle with addiction, that are formerly incarcerated, or want something different for their lives," he said.
Organizers say the club is welcome to all former inmates or those impacted by incarceration in some way.
They have also helped provide on-campus jobs for many of their members.