Against all odds: From the streets to UC Berkeley

Left to Right: Michael's grandfather Jose Cerda, Michael's father Gustavo Cerda, Michael Cerda-Jara and Michael's son, Julian Cerda.

Left to Right: Berkeley Sociology Professor Loïc Wacquant, Michael Cerda-Jara and Berkeley Sociology Chair David Harding.

April 16, 2024

Growing up in the East Bay, Michael Cerda-Jara faced adversity throughout his hardscrabble childhood. He joined a gang at the age of 13. He got into fights in school and faced expulsion multiple times. 

He was lost academically because of the trouble he got into and lack of support from those around him, including his teachers. One of them, his 6th-grade teacher, once told him he “wasn’t going to end up anywhere except for prison or dead.” No one expected Cerda-Jara to amount to much and he had low expectations for himself. 

Yet today, he’s proudly working as the associate director of the Berkeley Underground Scholars Initiative (USI), which helps other formerly incarcerated individuals like him turn their lives around by earning a college degree. Cerda-Jara, who graduated with honors in Sociology in 2020, is also pursuing his Ph.D. in Sociology at Stanford University.

Cerda-Jara’s journey was rough, but his perseverance and grit helped him overcome impossible odds. 

Incarceration and Inspiration  

In 2011, Cerda-Jara was incarcerated in county jail, which he describes as a very dehumanizing experience, but also a very comfortable environment because of the many familiar faces he saw. It was a political and social awakening for him. He began to ask himself about his own Mexican identity, questioning, “Why are there so many of us here? And why is it that Chicanos and Blacks far outnumber any group or ethnicity here?” Throughout his time in jail, he kept these questions in the back of his mind. 

After his release, Cerda-Jara said he lost his purpose and direction, turning to alcohol to cope. After a near death experience in a car crash, a friend suggested that he should go to community college and she enrolled him in classes. This was a culture shock for Cerda-Jara, having been out of school for seven years. He recalls the internalized feeling of being an academic outsider resurfacing. Motivated to prove the teachers who once doubted him wrong, he promised himself that he would finish community college. 

As Cerda-Jara immersed himself in his studies, he discovered a newfound sense of purpose and direction. Overcoming his fear of failure, he excelled academically, earning commendable grades and garnering recognition for his efforts. Initially enrolled in community college without a specific major in mind, he explored various general education courses. It wasn't until his second semester in community college when he enrolled in an introductory sociology class that his interest was piqued. The course introduced him to social theories and critical topics such as mass incarceration, racial discrimination and social inequality, which resonated deeply with his personal experiences. 

Cerda-Jara found a profound connection between academic discourse and his lived experiences in his sociology classes. He experienced a sense of empowerment and enlightenment, viewing sociology as a tool to make sense of his past and present circumstances. And his encounter with the works of UC Santa Barbara Sociology Professor and Berkeley Ethnic Studies Alumnus Victor Rios, a former justice-impacted individual from Oakland, inspired him to succeed. Through Rios' narrative, Cerda-Jara saw a reflection of his own potential and felt compelled to challenge societal expectations and limitations.

UC Berkeley Journey

Despite the encouragement from academic counselors who urged him to transfer to UC Berkeley, Cerda-Jara initially hesitated. Faced with financial constraints and self-doubt, he viewed Berkeley as an inaccessible institution reserved for privileged individuals. 

But his perspective shifted when he learned about Cal Day, an event showcasing UC Berkeley's campus and programs. Upon arriving on campus, Cerda-Jara encountered a student whose kindness and guidance provided a beacon of support. As they spoke, Cerda-Jara seized the opportunity to share his story, disclosing his past as a formerly incarcerated individual striving for academic redemption. It was through this exchange that he received a recommendation to explore the Underground Scholars Initiative.

Cerda-Jara's decision to choose Berkeley was deeply influenced by his discovery of USI. He found a sense of belonging and purpose that fueled his determination to pursue his academic goals, having been inspired by USI’s mission and values. At USI, Cerda-Jara also found a supportive network of peers and mentors, who guided him through the complexities of Berkeley campus life and academics. Through workshops, events and personalized support, the initiative provided him with the tools and resources he needed to navigate the challenges of an elite university.

His journey at Berkeley is a testament to the transformative power of education, resilience and community support. From navigating Berkeley’s academic landscape, to finding guidance in the Underground Scholars Initiative and forming meaningful relationships with faculty members like UC Berkeley Sociology Chair and Professor Dave Harding, Cerda-Jara was able to succeed at Cal and graduate near the top of his class. 

“Michael's journey to the highest echelons of U.S. higher education shows the transformative potential of the opportunities provided by a Cal education,” Harding said. “In the UC Berkeley Sociology Department, we strive to provide an environment in which students like Michael can make connections to peers and faculty, explore the ideas that help them to understand our society, and equip themselves to make an impact in the world.”

Research and Helping Others

Harding and Cerda-Jara built a foundation for a collaborative relationship focused on research and advocacy. Through Professor Harding’s guidance, Cerda-Jara led research projects focused on reentry to society and criminal justice reform – including a recently published paper in Sociological Science titled "Criminal Record Stigma in the Labor Market for College Graduates: A Mixed Methods Study,” which documented the difficulty in landing a job for formerly incarcerated people with criminal records. Cerda-Jara recruited a team of students to help collect the data and is credited as the first author of the article. 

"Reflecting on my academic journey, I'm grateful for the invaluable role my mentors and academic experiences played in shaping my aspirations for the future,” he said. “With their guidance and support, I've not only achieved academic success but also developed a profound sense of purpose and direction in my scholarly pursuits. As I prepare to embark on the next phase of my journey, I remain deeply appreciative of the mentorship and opportunities that have propelled me toward my goals." 

After completing his Ph.D. at Stanford, Cerda-Jara hopes he can inspire other formerly incarcerated individuals to pursue their educational goals, no matter how many obstacles they might face. 

“I don’t consider myself an inspiration, but there are people who have inspired me,” he said. “I’d like to inspire others.”