Twenty-three-year-old Adrian Burt was homeless when he went to a resource fair in Long Beach, recalling, “I was trying to fix my life, but I didn’t know how.”

That’s when he discovered Long Beach City College’s (LBCC) Phoenix Scholars, a new multi-year program that helps gang-impacted students access and persist in college. With his difficult life experiences, Burt wasn’t certain he belonged in higher education. The Phoenix Scholars program helped convince him otherwise.

“There’s a big community here at LBCC that has been through the same things I have,’” recalls Burt. “That gave me so much motivation to keep going.”

The Phoenix Scholars program  is a new research-to-practice model launched in partnership with the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education’s Pullias Center, the foremost research center on student access and success in higher education. The initiative will receive $990,000 over three years from the U.S. Department of Education’s new Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education.

USC faculty member and leading international expert on college pathways for gang-associated youth, Dr. Adrian Huerta, immediately reached out to LBCC President Dr. Mike Muñoz when he came across the grant last fall. 

“Long Beach City College’s commitment to equity and action really align with what we do at the Pullias Center,” says Huerta. “It was the perfect research-to-practice team.”

The Phoenix Scholars program is the first to secure the national grant, and the support comes at an opportune time. In California, there are gangs in 57 of 58 counties, according to the professor, with an estimated 50,000 K-12 students who are gang members. 

Most are labeled as “troublemakers” and referred to school resource officers, who approach the problem with a criminal justice lens — not the human development perspective young students need. “Kids get pushed out and feel marginalized in schools,” says Huerta. “Only 50% of students in gangs graduate from high school.”

LBCC is committed to changing those grim statistics with the Phoenix Scholars program, which includes a dual enrollment component, bridging higher education for learners ages 16 to 24. The college already boasts a highly successful Justice Scholars program for formerly incarcerated and systems-impacted students, supported by a reentry grant from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. With experience providing the holistic support historically unrepresented students need to succeed, the college is primed to expand its crucial work.

“We have an obligation to attend to the ways in which gang-associated individuals are marginalized and criminalized so that we can ultimately transform our communities,” says Dr. Sonia De La Torre-Iniguez, LBCC Dean of Student Equity. “More broadly, we can disrupt that school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affects our communities of color.”

The initial cohort of 25 Phoenix Scholars had their first Summer Academy in August, a three-day intensive program fostering a college-going mindset, building community, and connecting students to an extensive support network. Students receive personalized help and are linked to other assistance they might be eligible for, including the Justice Scholars program, EOPS, Foster Youth Support Services, and others. As De La Torre-Iniguez says, “We maximized all of the programs they can connect to in order to receive above-and-beyond support.”

The school is also hiring a social worker to support mental health needs and a workforce development specialist to establish paid internship opportunities, allowing students to gain crucial workforce experience without sacrificing income. Along those lines, the College is also working with the community-based organization Centro CHA, which offers professional interview clothing, financial and rental assistance, and job training. As Workforce Program Coordinator Robert Castillo says, “We offer support however the students may need it.”

Castillo says it was “an amazing experience” to see how students were set up for college success at the Phoenix Scholars Summer Academy. “It’s a tremendous opportunity,” says the coordinator. “Providing a bridge to community college is really needed in the community.”

According to the interim director of Phoenix Scholars, Jose Ibarra, the comprehensive support network is crucial to ensuring that these students finish college. With individualized counseling and consistent check-ins, students are slated to succeed, in large part because faculty and staff uniquely understand students’ needs. At the Summer Academy, Ibarra confided to the scholars that he was also impacted by gang violence as a student. Still, he was able to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“We shared our own personal struggles and barriers so that students could relate to us,” says Ibarra. “It showed students that it didn’t matter that we were faced with gang violence — we were all able to overcome it. 

“That was pivotal because students told us, ‘This is exactly what I needed to hear.’”

Ibarra is planning monthly workshops to help students build their college-going confidence and community gatherings so learners can network with their peers, including the Justice Scholars. “This program is giving a different light of who these individuals are,” says Ibarra. “We’re setting them up for a better future.”

The hope is to make the program replicable across California and even the country, according to De La Torre-Iniguez. There is also potential for students to help pay it forward. According to Ibarra, future Phoenix leaders are in the first cohort. Just take Burt, who started college with an interest in welding, but now is thinking about social work so he can help other gang-impacted youth. 

“I feel like everything is coming together for me, and Phoenix Scholars was the first step,” says Burt. “They were my stepping stone to get here, and without them, I wouldn’t have even made it to the first week of school.

“That’s why I want to give back and help other students, just like the program has helped me.”