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From prison to promise: Project Rebound unlocks potential

Alumni Engagement Specialist

After serving 10 months in Kern County’s Lerdo Jail for possession of meth for sale, Nura Chacon was sure CSUB would never take her back.

Not after the fall of 2016 when she’d accepted financial aid, started classes and then dropped out halfway through the semester following yet another drug relapse and jail term. She says she’s been locked up half a dozen times in New Mexico and California for drug crimes.

But after failing to find a job – even in fast food – Chacon decided to look into Project Rebound, a CSUB program that helps formerly incarcerated people get into and stay in college. It assesses their education level then helps them develop an academic plan, enroll in classes and sign up for supportive services such as mentoring and tutoring.

Project Rebound, which is all about giving people second chances, took a chance on Chacon. It paid off. She’s now a senior studying psychology and expects to graduate next May. With a certification she’s also earning, the 43-year-old will qualify to be a drug counselor.

“From my experience, drug addicts relate to other drug addicts,” said Chacon, who has been sober for a year. “And I can show them it’s possible to change your life.”

Nura Chacon and her fiance, Scott Kightlinger.

Nura Chacon, left, got a second chance at a university education at CSUB through Project Rebound, which helps the formerly incarcerated get into and succeed in college. Here she’s pictured with her fiancé, Scott Kightlinger.

Project Rebound has been a California State University program since 1967 when Professor John Irwin, who’d served a five-year prison term for armed robbery, started it at San Francisco State. It’s only been at CSUB since 2016, but is already changing lives.

So far six CSUB Project Rebound students have graduated, three with bachelor’s degrees and three with master’s degrees. Currently, 42 people are either enrolled in the university or will be this fall.

Project Rebound students study everything from psychology to English and business to engineering.

“This gives them a second chance and an opportunity to give back to the community and be a productive member of society again,” said CSUB Project Rebound Coordinator Michael Dotson.

Formerly incarcerated individuals learn about Project Rebound

CSUB Project Rebound Coordinator Michael Dotson introduces the program to a new group of applicants for the Spring 2020 semester.

The program is open to all types of formerly incarcerated individuals as long as they meet the educational requirements. And if they don’t, Project Rebound helps get them qualified. Many take the classes they need at Bakersfield College first.

Prospective student Andrew Dominguez, 33, learned about the program five years ago while doing time at Kern Valley State Prison in Delano for being a felon in possession of a firearm. Out for nine months now, he wants to enroll in Project Rebound at his next opportunity, in January 2020.

Dominguez, a Bakersfield native whose mother had him at age 12 going on 13, says he’s been incarcerated for more than half his life. You name the local detention center, he’s been locked up in it: Kern Crossroads, Camp Erwin Owen, the California Youth Authority and the maximum-security section of Kern Valley.

Dominguez says he’s determined to leave that life behind and secure the education he needs to realize his dream of counseling troubled young people and adults with histories like his.

He said he’s halfway to an associate degree in communications after taking Bakersfield College classes inside and outside of prison and wants to continue with those studies. Dominguez is already trying to help others by working with men at a faith-based men’s home in town.

“I want to give back everything I took,” Dominguez said of his life ambitions.

He’s even begun thinking about how to get his extended family more invested in education.

“I have over a hundred members of my family and I don’t think any of us have college funds for our kids.” he said. “It really bothers me.”

At the beginning of 2019, nine CSU campuses had a Project Rebound program. Seven more are adding one, Dotson said.

Since 2016, Project Rebound students system-wide have earned an overall grade point average of 3.0 and have a zero percent recidivism rate, according to Cal State Fullerton, which has the program. It says 87 percent of graduates have found full-time employment or been admitted to post-graduate programs.

Project Rebound helped keep Nolen Burchett, 39, on the straight and narrow after his release from Salinas Valley State Prison for robbing three banks with a note over a one-month period in Visalia to fund his opiate addiction. He served five years, one month and one week at three different institutions.

Nolen Burchett and his fiancee, Kelly Irwin.

Nolen Burchett, left, credits Project Rebound with helping him avoid reoffending and landing back in prison like so many parolees. Here he’s at the Pismo Beach pier with his fiancée, Kelly Irwin.

Burchett, with the help of his mother, had researched and sent his materials to Project Rebound during his three-year confinement at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo County. And so within about a month of exiting Salinas Valley in July 2018, he was able to start school at CSUB.

Getting in so quickly was a godsend because it gave him a goal and purpose, which are key to staying out of trouble, Burchett said. Having taken classes through Cuesta College while at the Men’s Colony, he’s now a senior who will earn his psychology degree next spring and like Chacon go into drug counseling.

In other happy news, Burchett is newly engaged to a teacher and moving to Visalia, where he’s originally from, to be with her and her 4-year-old daughter full-time.

“Project Rebound has helped me stay focused,” Burchett said. “I have no violations and I don’t plan on getting any.

“Prison is not a fun place to be. I know I never want to go back to that.”