He tried to appear casual — just another motorist crossing into the United States from Mexico. No white knuckles on the steering wheel, no sweat on his brow, no broken tail light, nothing to see here. But on this day, Omar Chavez’s demeanor and nondescript vehicle couldn’t save him; the Border Patrol had uncovered a pattern that allowed them to discern which cars were running drugs.
He was driving such a car.
As a student of color from East Los Angeles, Chavez had overcome many obstacles in pursuit of his bachelor’s degree at California State University, Fullerton — from attending underserved schools to being the first in his family to attend college — but on the road that day, as he was waved into secondary inspection, he knew he’d let these obstacles get the best of him. It didn’t matter that his goal was to make quick cash to pay for college; he was committing a crime, one that not only undermined his own principles, but also hurt the people of the very communities he came from.
Chavez couldn’t have known it at the time, but decades prior to his own arrest, a man named John Irwin was convicted for robbing a gas station. And while these two felonies are separated by more than half a century, the men who committed them are connected through the one true solution to crime and poverty — higher education — and what is arguably the nation’s most impactful system in purveying equitable access to it: the California State University.
For Irwin, it began in prison where he earned 24 college credits and it continued upon his release with a bachelor’s degree, a Ph.D. and, ultimately, a 30-year career at San Francisco State, where he served as a professor of sociology and criminology. His teaching, along with the belief that higher education could be a redemptive path for others, prompted him to create Project Rebound at San Francisco State in 1967.
The program, which aims to end the revolving door of mass incarceration by supporting current and…