El Camino College FIRST Students Win Big in PSA Competition

June 25, 2024 Torrance, CA

For El Camino College graduate Jahanzaib Anwar, completing his education and sharing his journey are closely connected. So, when he had the chance to enter a contest where teams of formerly incarcerated students were asked to communicate what it means to reintegrate into society, he knew he had something to say.

Like many students on the team from El Camino’s Formerly Incarcerated Re-Entry Students Thriving (FIRST) Program, Anwar had little experience creating presentations and addressing an audience. But the students spoke from the heart and shared their truth through a well-organized and creative public service announcement, also known as a PSA. Featuring a PowerPoint and in-person testimonials, their project was a great success, receiving accolades from judges and their peers. The team brought home the first-place prize, along with a sense of pride in their work, and a $1,000 award for the FIRST Program.

“It felt great to share my story because I realized that our program and our people need to be heard,” said Anwar. “Even though I’m not used to it, I’m comfortable telling my story because I believe it might help others go to college even if they think they don’t have a chance.”

Now a student at California State University, Long Beach majoring in health care administration, Anwar continues his connection with El Camino’s FIRST program by working in the office part time. He started at El Camino in 2011, then enrolled again in 2022 after a period of incarceration. Back on campus, Anwar saw a flier for the FIRST Program and soon found the assistance he needed to complete his degree.

“Coming back to school, didn’t know what it would be like; I needed someone to help me,” he said. “I knew what I wanted to do but I didn’t know how. I would not have been able to transfer to Long Beach without the help of people in FIRST. Many people who join this program don’t know anything about higher education in general and don’t think college is something they can do. Well, they can. And here at El Camino, they will be guided all the way.”

Anwar described this journey in the PSA he helped created for the Rising Scholars PSA Challenge, part of the annual Project Rebound symposium at California State University, Los Angeles. The event is specifically designed for community college students who have had a carceral experience, and the challenge asked students about redefining what it means to reintegrate into society with purpose and support. Several teams representing colleges from the Los Angeles area took the challenge and then shared their stories of success and challenges in the form of a PSA.

“Our students worked so hard on this project and showed they were worthy, capable, and prepared for the challenge,” said team coach Izzy Gonzalez, a student service specialist with FIRST and El Camino grad. “This courageous act was so important and so impactful. By sharing their story, they inspire the next person. They were definitely in a vulnerable place, and they did an amazing job. We are very proud.”

Launched in 2020, El Camino’s FIRST Program is part of the Rising Scholars Network, a California initiative that serves incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students. The FIRST Program provides a pathway from prison to college that helps students meet their educational goals. Personalized support, counseling, financial aid, job opportunities, and basic needs assistance are just some of the services provided in this welcoming community.

By participating in events such as the Project Rebound symposium at CSU Los Angeles, staff can exchange best practices and students can see the next step in the pathway – transferring to a university.

“This experience was a great opportunity for students to see what’s next for them in their education,” said FIRST Program Coordinator Francisco “Pancho” Lopez. “Students were able to see that there are programs like FIRST at California State University campuses, and a pathway with the same nurturing support is waiting for them so they can earn a bachelor’s degree.”

The FIRST program introduces students to a variety of academic activities and offers workshops, guest speakers, and university tours. Staff help students heal from the past and accept that the past does not define the present, Gonzalez said.

“We want students to envision their future,” she added. “And there are still barriers to face, such as food and housing insecurity, transportation, and academic challenges, but we can talk about it and find answers. There is still so much to be achieved in their education and building a bridge from community college to the university can help make that happen.”

For more information about El Camino College’s Formerly Incarcerated Re-Entry Students Thriving (FIRST) Program, view: