SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Arturo "Cheech" Raygoza spent 13 years behind bars, but this summer, he is receiving his degree from Allan Hancock College.
The formerly incarcerated student said this accomplishment almost did not happen, if not for one professor.
Raygoza had been institutionalized from a young age, but in 2016 he made a decision to try to make a better life for himself and his family.
Since he had worked on cars throughout his life, he enrolled in the automotive program at Allan Hancock College.
He said during the first day of class, he felt like an outcast and did not want to return. Luckily, his professor intervened.
“I noticed someone who looked a little - quote - rough, a little out of place, and everything about me professionally, personally wanted me to connect with him,” said Lynn Becerra-Valencia, Assistant Professor of Personal Development.
Becerra-Valencia walked Raygoza to various campus resources on his first day - a simple gesture that made a world of a difference.
“If she wouldn’t have done that, I would have quit,” said Raygoza.
Raygoza began meeting with other parolees on campus for support and empathy, and eventually created a club on campus called Beyond Incarceration Greater Education or B.I.G.E.
B.I.G.E. aims to bring awareness to the students of AHC that formerly incarcerated students have voice on campus.
Becerra-Valencia describes the group as a "reclaimed space for our students from formerly incarcerated backgrounds, to feel space, to feel heard, to not have to give any excuses.”
Now in its 4th year, the club has dozens of members - some former lifers who, with help from Raygoza, have become full-time students.
Raygoza wants people to know that their past does not have to be a life sentence. “What Lynn did for me, literally walking to all these resources, is what I’m paying forward,” said Raygoza. “Showing them this new way of life, that’s possible.”
For more information about B.I.G.E, you can contact Lynn Becerra-Valencia at Lynn.Becerra@hancockcollege.edu or Arturo "Cheech" Raygoza at firstname.lastname@example.org.