Sometimes all it takes is one opportunity to change life for the better.

Such is the case for 19-year-old Daniel Casillas, currently enrolled as a College of San Mateo (CSM) student through Project Change, one of the first programs in the nation to offer a first-year college education to incarcerated youth.

By age 13, Casillas found himself sitting inside a jail cell. “I sat there wondering, what do I do now? This was one of the most dehumanizing experiences I have ever had in my life,” he said.

Kicked out of school and arrested multiple times for a petty offense, Casillas was facing the next five years in and out of the Youth Services Center and Camp Glenwood, a residential facility in La Honda for high-risk young minors.

While incarcerated he was introduced to Project Change and “fell in love with the program,” he said. “Because it’s for students that have been incarcerated in the juvenile justice system or are at-risk in their community, Project Change opened up many doors for me.”

Casillas, who is now the current club president of Project Change and majoring in Administration of Justice with the hope of becoming a defense attorney, credits Project Change for giving him a community that understands his past and “pushes you to be more than your past mistakes.”

Project Change is a referral-based program for court-involved youth that is rooted in social justice, equity and access to higher education. The goal of the program is to reach out to some of the most traditionally underserved populations of students in the county and “create a strong pathway of support so they can achieve their educational goals,” said Project Change founder, Katie Bliss. “One of the most positive results of being in the program is the transition from seeing oneself as an inmate, to identifying as a college student.”

The program is made possible with the support of the College of San Mateo, San Mateo County Juvenile Court judges, District Attorney's Office, Private Defender Program, and San Mateo County Community College District working together with community partners such as the San Mateo County Probation Department, San Mateo County Office of Education, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), and Each One Reach One (EORO).

“Project Change illustrates the care and dedication that the County of San Mateo and San Mateo County Community College District have for students from all walks of life and ensures that every person has an opportunity to pursue their academic dream,” said SMCCSM Chancellor Ron Galatolo.

Each organization’s role is important for the outcome of the college program; however, the San Mateo County Probation Department “is critical to the success of this program and could not exist without their dedicated partnership with the College of San Mateo,” said Bliss.

The Probation Department offers staffing support and ensures youth have access to the program both inside and outside of their detention facilities while on probation and once released from custody. This includes transporting currently incarcerated students to the classroom at the juvenile hall and College of San Mateo campus in preparation for their first year in school.

Probation also provides the necessary supervision and security for a safe learning environment for students. A judge must issue a court order that releases a student from custody to attend classes on campus and college courses taught by CSM professors at the juvenile hall.

“With this level of community cooperation, youth who may have never believed they had a chance for higher education can now proudly call themselves college students,” said Christine Villanis, Deputy Chief Institution Services, San Mateo County Probation Department.

Just this past fall semester, 25 incarcerated youth finished their first class in the program at the San Mateo County Juvenile Hall with many expressing their optimism for a brighter future in a class survey:

• “Before this class I hadn’t thought about college because I was incarcerated. Now I am hoping for a better future from this class.”

• “I didn’t think about going to college because I had no interest in anything. I am now hoping to get more information about going to college.”

• “I decided to make this choice to go to college because it’s a path for a better life.”

These students, from foster youth to economically disadvantaged, have been through a great deal of obstacles and challenges in life, said Bliss.

“But they are here now with passion, determination, grit, and tremendous resiliency, pursuing their higher education. It’s apparent from the joint partnership with the San Mateo County Community College District and CSM that the Probation Department wants the young people who they work with to have a positive future,” said Bliss.

Take 19-year-old Nick Jasso for example. It did not take long for him to see his future change for the better while enrolled in Project Change.

“I had little to no access to the realm of higher education,” said Jasso, who is currently the Project Change leader and CSM ambassador. “In fact, I didn't plan on attending college at all because I did not believe that college was available to me. However, since joining I have been given a golden ticket into college and I've been able to thrive in an environment that nurtures my skill set.”

Taking on leadership roles, excelling in coursework and mentoring others is what Dr. Jennifer Taylor-Mendoza, CSM Dean of Academic Support and Learning Technologies, says are all part of the educational journey for these students.

“Our students’ potential is limitless … Project Change represents the essence of our college mission and shared responsibility to serve our community, and in this case some of its most vulnerable members,” Taylor-Mendoza said.

As the program grows, CSM continues to offer more college courses and serve more students on and off campus. The goal and hope, said Bliss, is more programing like this will exist at the San Mateo County College District’s sister colleges and ideally be available in other counties in the state.

“The students deserve access to higher education, and we have a successful program to provide it,” said Bliss. “The partnership between the San Mateo County Probation Department, College District and nonprofits to provide college access to incarcerated youth speaks volumes to the shared vision and dedication the county has for social justice and educational equity.”

For more information about Project Change, visit http://collegeofsanmateo.edu/projectchange/.