Who are UCI’s Underground Scholars? In 2018, students established the Underground Scholars Initiative to create pathways into higher education for incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and system-impacted individuals. After three years, USI members advocated for a staff-led program, leading to the formation of the Underground Scholars Program in October 2021. The two groups are separate but aligned in their mission to provide support services for such students.
Shawn Khalifa – an undergraduate with a compelling story – is one of 44 participants currently in UCI’s Underground Scholars Program. He began serving a life sentence for first-degree murder at the age of 15. Released 16 years later, Khalifa is now on track to graduate in June with a degree in sociology. His journey highlights the transformative power of education and support in changing lives and trajectories.
Khalifa’s involvement in this effort extends beyond UCI. He works part time at Irvine Valley College as a project specialist for its Rising Scholars program – part of a broader network within the California Community Colleges dedicated to serving students affected by the criminal justice system – and was instrumental in organizing the Jan. 24 IVC Rising Scholars Premiere Event.
In this UCI Podcast, Khalifa candidly opens up about his personal history and reveals how his lived experiences ignited a passion for a future career in which he helps develop policies promoting systemic transformation in education.
This episode was recorded in the podcast studio at UCI’s ANTrepreneur Center. The music, titled “Road Home,” was provided by VYEN via the audio library in YouTube Studio.
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Cara Capuano/The UCI Podcast:
From the University of California Irvine, I’m Cara Capuano. Thank you for listening to the UCI podcast. Our guest today is Shawn Khalifa, a UC Irvine undergraduate majoring in sociology, who’s on track to finish his degree in June of 2024. Shawn, thank you for taking the time to talk with us today.
Thank you for having me.
As one of the hosts and producers of the UCI podcast, I typically come up with my own ideas for stories to feature in this space, but this opportunity to talk with Shawn happened differently. Shawn reached out to me and suggested we consider him as a guest. Shawn, what motivated you to send that initial email to me?
What motivated me was getting emails. We get these joint emails as students that highlight your podcast. So, we see The UCI Podcast come through and we see who is the guest and what is the topic. And a lot of what I see represented is professionals in this professional space that have topics that are very important, but I feel like there’s also an underrepresentation of the lived experience component.
For instance, I have a lived experience in being incarcerated, being an incarcerated college student and now being released as a system-impacted student on campus, physically representing an entire population that is not always given an opportunity to be seen in an intellectual light. And since I feel like not only do I possess the capability to express myself and speak up for us, but I also feel like because I have the lived experience, it puts me in a position where my voice should and needs to be heard and I went through lived milestones, which puts me in a position to be an expert on incarceration and being formerly incarcerated and going to college.
I’m thinking about some of the words that you just shared: “seen” population, a “population that wants to be heard.” That is one of the unique realities, as I see it, for formerly incarcerated individuals who have moved on and are getting their education and are advancing their careers through getting their degrees. How large is that community here at UC Irvine?
So, we have 44 students that are members of our Underground Scholars program. And this program specifically represents those that are system-impacted or formerly incarcerated. But that’s also missing a number of students who choose not to participate in the program. So, there may be a few that don’t want to be labeled an “Underground Scholar” because for some, the goal is to get away and progress – and not stay amongst the community and identifiable. Some people don’t feel comfortable with that.
But for the 44 of us that do, we’re really vocal on campus and active, and you’ll see us in different capacity, different spaces. We have Ph.D. students, master’s students, undergrads. We have faculty who are formerly incarcerated. Our director is formerly incarcerated, our program manager is system-impacted.
What would you like to share with us about your personal story that led to your lived experiences?
So, from my personal experience, I always take everybody back to the Rodney King riots. So, my mother – a single white mother – my father’s Egyptian, he was a heroin addict. So, he went from being a pilot to addicted to heroin, to living on the streets, to meeting my mom. They got married, they had my sister.
By the time I was born, he would have her living in high drug areas, so it would be easy for him to get his heroin. So they were in Venice Beach, they were in West Adams. And the last place that they were before the Rodney King riots was an area called “the Jungles.” And initially the area known as “the Jungles” was created for Hollywood elites – it resembled a jungle. But now what’s left of it is more low income housing.
And the crime was going up by the time of the Rodney King events. And my father was there because this is where his heroin dealers were at, and it was easy for him to get his … what he needed – he called it “medicine.” So ultimately, he was arrested and deported back to Egypt. My mother was by herself. Uh, the police chose to create violence in the community by attacking Mr. Rodney King and this resulted in an eruption of violence. And you did see fires, and you saw looting and more violence. But for my mother, being a single white mother, she saw this on the news.
And on top of not only this one event, she worked in Marina del Rey for an electronics company. And a lot of her coworkers would come to work, and they would break down crying. And their welling would be in relation to their sons or their daughters. And the common phrases they would be crying out were, “Oh my God, my child was murdered. Oh my God, my child was arrested for murder.” And everybody in the company would hear this.
And my mother was one of the women hearing this and she’s like, “Man, I need to figure out how to get my kids out of here.” And because my father was gone, she now didn’t have a reason to be there. He brought her there. So, it was the Rodney King events which prompted her to move to Perris, California. And what happened was a lot of families at this time in the nineties thought moving to the Inland Empire was going to paradise. But what happened in these communities was the similar societal issues developed. So, in my community, for instance, a local Crip gang developed. Those guys became my best friends as I started growing up.
And what comes with those friends is now you have a structure and a community group that’s different from your standard societal groups. People don’t celebrate group communities. So, people label them Crips, Bloods, Southsiders – or whatever they’re labeling them – that’s more of a law enforcement, “You’re bad, you’re a gang.” And then the group within itself – even though they carry those names – the groupness is more of a brotherhood and a club and a collective. The crime and the negative stuff that comes from that are individuals typically. Sometimes there’s group thought that that comes about, but that’s not everybody’s experience and everybody’s case. For instance, I grew up there, I became a member of this same group, but I wasn’t expected to commit violence.
Even though there were negative role models, which ultimately led to why I’m here today speaking to you, there were instances where individuals would say, “Don’t do this because it comes with a risk of life in prison.” So, for instance, “We’re going to go commit home invasion, but because you’re 15 years old, we don’t think you should.” So, they would give me a little bit of advice like, “Hey, you don’t have to do this.”
Your original sentence was for life in prison. Can you take us through what led to that sentencing?
Yeah. So, in my environment, I started smoking weed at the age of 12. From 12 to 15, I smoked weed every day and I started getting kicked out of classrooms. So, in middle school, I would steal to get money to buy weed. My mom still worked in Los Angeles and my father was still gone. So, five days a week, my mom would leave at four in the morning, she would get home around five at night. So, I was without my parents throughout five days a week.
And what happened was I started kicking it – hanging out in the neighborhood with my friends, who just happened to be from a group. And a lot of the commonalities were smoking weed every day. And it was normal to see crimes happen. So, you would see people get robbed, you would see violence every now and then. But it was always my choice whether I wanted to be involved or not.
So, what led to my life in prison was a robbery occurred in my neighborhood. We saw who did it, we knew them – they weren’t necessarily a part of our group, they were part of a whole other group who happened to be rivals of the older members. But we still wanted to get involved because we wanted money to buy weed this day. So, we followed them. And I was 15 years old, so I was with a 16-, a 17-, and an 18-year-old. And when they went to burglarize the home, I had an understanding that no one would be home. It would be a theft and they would leave. But what happened was they were a little bit older, and they chose to attack the homeowner and ultimately, he dies and passes away.
So, I show up to the burglary – expecting it to be a burglary – and I see the homeowner and I choose to flee. So, at this point in my life, I became callous. I wasn’t as considerate of other humans as I could have been at this age – at the age of 15. A lot of this came from lived experience in the community – what I was learning day in and day out from the males in my environment on how to even be a man and function here. But that choice ultimately led me to be responsible for first-degree murder because even as a 15-year-old in the year 2003, you had a law called Proposition 21, which means any dangerous felony that results in harm or a death – it could be a shooting or a murder or even a robbery – the district attorney had sole discretion to charge you as an adult. And in my case, that’s what happened.
My 17-year-old friend decided to testify against us that we were present at the home. He received a deal – he didn’t get time served, he had to go to prison for 13 years, eight months. My other co-defendant pled guilty to the murders. He was 16 years old – he received life without parole twice and a 25-to-life. Our 18-year-old co-defendant was murdered on the same day. And then I myself received 25-years-to-life for the murder of the homeowner.
How did you maintain hope and optimism in the face of all of that uncertainty – what could be a 25-year-to-life sentence?
Yeah, so a lot of what we go through growing up in these communities trains you for this experience. So, you start learning a little sense of toughness. I remember just to hang out with my friends, I had to fight them. I remember them punching me and I didn’t understand at first. And I was like, I could either run away or fight back. I chose to fight back more out of fear than being tough. But that gained me a level of respect and they started hanging out with me. So just these rituals that you go through in California and these communities put you in a position to be resilient.
So, by the time I was incarcerated, I wasn’t tough, and I wasn’t resilient at first. I had the attributes from my neighborhood that I had to channel later, but I also was really weak, and I became a child. Every night for the first six months of incarceration, I would cry to my mom – but I would put the blankets over my head so no one could see me. And I wanted to make sure no one could hear me. But all I wanted was my mom and to be a little boy and to play games. But I was now locked in a cell – some days 24 hours a day – and I didn’t have a way out.
So as a human, what you start to learn is when you don’t have a way out, you’re going to start adapting because we’re all really resilient. And I started learning: how do I get out of my cell? What can I do to not upset the staff members? Because the staff members had domain over juvenile hall – if you couldn’t exercise, if you didn’t follow the rules, you’d be in your cell.
Not only would you be in your cell, but if you acted out too much, you’d be physically assaulted. And I’ve seen assaults to where grown men would attack a juvenile, smash their face into the wall, hit them with a can of pepper spray, they would bleed, and it would all be justified because we were all charged with violent crimes.
So, I was really conformative to when you come out every day, you sit on the ground, you hold your knees, you wrap your arms around your knees, you sit up straight, you listen to the staff talk – because the kids who conformed the most got the most time out of their cell. So that led me to wanting to go to church, which initially got me out of my cell, but then helped me develop a belief in a higher power. But also, they had this thing called the “Top 10.” So, if you behaved, you became the “Top 10” and you would get an extra hour out of your cell every day. If you became the top four, you would almost get the entire day out of your cell.
I knew what I didn’t want: I didn’t want to be in my cell, and I didn’t want to get beaten. So those were motivating factors for what I didn’t want. What I did want was to be out exercising, watching TV, playing games. Those were the things that were helping me get ready to deal with life in prison.
You also were drawn toward programs that were being offered to incarcerated individuals to potentially provide opportunities for a brighter future. What drew you toward those kinds of experiences and how long did it take for those to develop for you?
I remember transferring within our juvenile hall system in Riverside County. You have three different juvenile halls – some are considered better than others – so, I was transferred to a better juvenile hall, and we had a teacher named Shelly Smith. And I remember when I went to high school, they always told us, “By the time you’re 21, 22, you’re either going to be dead, in jail – there are only like three of you that are going to make it out of this mess.” And that was a grim statistic.
I was one of the individuals who ended up getting life in prison out of that statistic. But this teacher – Shelly Smith in Southwestern Juvenile Hall – she said, “Every single one of you in my class, I’m going to make sure you get a high school diploma by the time you leave.” So Shelly Smith was the first inkling I got that programming and getting a reward and a certificate was attainable even though I was facing life in prison. She made sure that by the time I turned 18 and I was transferred to the adult system, I left with a high school diploma.
A lot of people in my community don’t promote education and they don’t say that that’s a pathway. A lot of it potentially was drug dealing, robberies, different ways of making money. So, attaining that, it was amazing. It didn’t seem possible, but it became possible.
And when I’m sent to the adult system, I have this mindset: “Hey, I accomplished a goal. I got a high school diploma, which I never thought I would get. I want to go to college.” I remember all of the staff in juvenile hall had associate’s degrees and I thought, “How cool would it be to get to the level they were at?” Because now I had a mindset where I didn’t want to keep doing wrong. I had changed my life in juvenile hall to where I was going to church, and I also got my high school diploma. So now I had this mindset like I want more of this the good and the accomplishments versus the negative. So, I was also developing leadership skills to where I felt confident that my way of living could be sustainable.
So, I took that to prison with me and one of the initial barriers was I had to go through high security prisons. When you enter our prison system as a youngster – when I went in – you got more points. More points mean higher security level and I had to adjust and endure prison for about five years on the high security levels before I was given the opportunity to program again. And within that time, I was mainly surviving, living within my cell and they call it “politicking” – you follow the rules of your group that you choose to hang out with. But there wasn’t much progression towards my education or a betterment of self. But it was mainly out of the barriers that administration put in place – I was just always restricted.
And my major breakthrough came when years later I lowered my points and was allowed to go to San Luis Obispo’s prison, the California Men’s Colony. And that was the first place I could go be myself. I was able to become an assisted caregiver and work as a “Gold Coat,” where I took care of individuals with Alzheimer’s. I took in care of individuals who had mental health issues, where they were able to come do yoga with us. We were able to run art classes and being there for a couple years allowed me to go even lower.
Now I became a Level II, and they had an opportunity to open a new prison in San Diego. I still had life in prison at this point, so there was no guarantee to ever come home. But I took the mindset like, “Hey, I’m going to live and die in prison. So, what I do want is I want a nice TV. I want radio, I want to see my family. I just want the little creature comforts and to live out my life here.”
But I also wanted the moral redemption because I knew that I left somebody one day and they ultimately died, and I saw them and I didn’t get them help. That’s ultimately why I was incarcerated. So, there was living amends as a part of that as well. I know that the harms of my past… I need to make up for now. Pretty much the rest of my life I’ll spend doing more good than harm. I took a lot of that with me to that facility and it paid off because that’s where they introduced college and that’s ultimately where I received my first chance to go home.
What did that look like?
That was amazing. So, I get there, I see all these amazing opportunities, a lot of freedom. The doors are open all day and a community college – because we’re within their service area, they introduced associate’s degree program in sociology to our facility. Because I had a high school diploma from juvenile hall, I qualified.
So, now I’m eligible and now I meet the staff because on this facility the free staff play a bigger role in your daily life. So instead of the gang rules and dealing with correctional officer aggression, you now deal with volunteers. One of these volunteers, he’s our very own PhD candidate, Gabe Rosales – he goes into the prison and represents “Jail Guitar Doors,” which is a music program for us. So, we just meet these outside individuals, and they motivate us to want to do well. Like, they share all these opportunities that we can have.
I also knew it could open up doors because how good would it look going to a parole board one day with an associate’s degree? I worked towards it. I was committed. And there were also rumors that UCI was going to bring a bachelor’s program to our facility.
So, were you a part of the UCI LIFTED program at the Richard Donovan Correctional Facility?
So, this is how it played out. I get lucky – in 2018, they changed the felony murder rule. They say that you have to have an intention to hurt somebody to be doing life in prison. So, this leads to me being resentenced to nine years for first-degree robbery – that was my new conviction. So halfway to my associate’s degree, I was released before the bachelor program ever came to our facility. But I can say now, I work as a peer mentor for the UCI LIFTED program and I go back into the prison every Friday to mentor the guys I left behind, which is really nice.
That’s amazing. The UCI Underground Scholars program – why was it important for you to get involved and establish that connection when you arrived at UCI?
So, my initial pathway – graduating from a community college in San Diego – was they always promoted Project Rebound San Diego State University. And that is where I transferred to initially. But while I’m in my first semester, I meet my beautiful wife, Maria. So now that I meet my wife, we decide to start our family. We don’t wait – within a couple of months, we’re already pregnant.
First semester there, I go to my housing – we’re on Hardy Avenue where all the parties are at, it’s kind of like frat row. So, I go to an event at UCI, and I meet Mr. Hector Cervantes, who’s our director of the UCI Underground Scholars. And not only do I meet him, but I was kind of encouraged to come by Gabe Rosales, the Underground Scholar who I first met in the RJ Donovan Correctional Facility. So, his connection brings me to campus, and I meet Hector and we have an event where they’re doing a film screening and a paneling. So, I talk to Hector, and I say, “Hey man, I started my family. I’m down at Project Rebound SDSU, but it’s not really family-friendly. I’m uncomfortable. They don’t want my family to live there. He said, “Well you can always transfer here.” So, he put that first spark in my head.
So, the director of the program walked me through the application process. I ultimately get accepted and now I’m at UCI. And now if I need anybody, the first people I’m going to go to are the Underground Scholars because if I go to a regular academic counselor, being an older student – I’m now 35 years old – most of the time you get treated as if you don’t have this intense history.
I have an intense history. I went through Pelican Bay State Prison, Lancaster’s Prison, Ironwood, San Luis Obispo, San Diego. I’ve been on Level IV yards. I functioned within a gang before. I’ve done a lot of drugs.
So, to go from that to being a successful college student contributing to society, you need a group that understands. So, my director has lived experience. I can go to him, and he doesn’t look at my past and say, “He’s such a threat to me.” People are going to be scared when you were convicted of murder. People are going to be scared when you talk about these things because it’s a natural thing in our community to fear what you don’t understand. And people might not understand where we’ve come from, which I shared a little bit about the factors on why we behave the way we do or do what we do.
Of course, I can’t speak for everybody, but in my experience, that’s what I experienced and that’s how it played out. So, that’s why the Underground Scholars was so important for me to connect with because they can help me navigate financial aid, housing. They can advocate on my behalf.
Sometimes I may not approach a situation correctly and now you have staff that work with Underground Scholars or your peers who can say, “No, I went through it.” Because Hector also graduated from UCI. Gabe also went through his undergrad here. He can say, “These are the bureaucracies at play, you should be patient, and this is how it will play out most likely.” So, they can give you that sort of insight.
There are also scholarships that come with being an Underground Scholar. As an untraditional student, you have a lot going against you that a traditional student may not have had. I lost 16 years of potential income-earning opportunity. So, there’s just a lot at play, which incentivizes becoming an Underground Scholar, continuing to be an Underground Scholar and representing Underground Scholars because there’s so many incoming Underground Scholars that may hear my story – that may say, “Oh man, I’m glad I have this community.” Or “Wow, Shawn navigated it after navigating these challenges.” These were barriers that could have said, “Go back to your community. Go live on somebody’s couch, go hustle.” But then how can I imagine my beautiful wife? How can I imagine my two beautiful daughters if that would’ve been the path I chose?
I’m a small part of the UCI Underground Scholars. That small piece and role that I’m playing is part of a larger cohesive because there’s 44 of us. So, if all 44 of us are accomplishing our goals and earning our degrees and paving the path for so many to come after us, we’re doing that living amends I initially spoke about, where we’re making up for our past harms.
Fast forward to June of 2024. Degree is in hand. What is next for you once you are ready to move on from this current chapter?
I’ve applied to graduate school here at UCI. I would love to get into our Ph.D. in education. I’ve also applied to a Master’s of public policy. These are topics that interest me because the school-to-prison pipeline is a real thing that exists. We have a world-renowned criminology department.
So, I would say that you hosting me on your podcast is doing a service to the humanity of our world. Like this is bigger than just me and you in this moment that you invite me on your podcast because not only do we have a world-renowned criminology department, but we have students in sociology, we have students in education, we have students in different departments who all work similar or with lived experience to that criminology department. There’s so much overlap and collaboration.
So, if I go into an education PhD, I have the insight of the school-to-prison pipeline when developing policies and that’s where the Master’s of public policy comes in. If I’m accepted into that program, I understand the power of policy. So, I see the value of policies and impacting future students. For instance, when I went to middle school – and I never made it to high school – when I got in trouble, I was just banned as the “bad kid.” They shared the bad statistics with me. They just funneled me into a system that was already built to incarcerate me for life.
So now when I’m making a policy or developing a policy or influencing a policy – or even I’m an educator, whether I’m in management or a professor – I now get to develop policy that’s considerate of the individual’s lived experience. So, if I know that they don’t have a parent at home, if I know that they have societal pressures, because there’s rules in our society that are outside of the penal code. And for some community members in California, this is a reality they have every time they step out of the house: that you either follow these rules or there’s negative consequences. And every American doesn’t have that. Every Californian doesn’t have that. And for the ones that don’t, who are developing policy, they may overlook the few that do have that extra stressor and just funnel them into our prison system and carceral system. And I think that we get to play a role in undoing that.
Your first email to me, Shawn, said that you wanted to “share with the audience about the power of education and overcoming barriers that exist in some of our communities.” Do you think we achieved that today?
I think we did. You allowed this platform to enlighten individuals who would not have had this knowledge had you not invited us to speak. So, I thank you for that. I think we accomplished that goal.
Thank you so much for joining us, Shawn.
For the latest UCI news, please visit our recently redesigned website news.uci.edu. I’m Cara Capuano. Thank you for listening to our conversation, which we recorded in the studio of UCI’s ANTrepreneur Center. The UCI Podcast is a production of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs at the University of California, Irvine. Please subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.