Campus & community, Campus news, People, Profiles

I’m a Berkeleyan: Student Shani Shay translates trauma into triumph

Underground Scholar takes lived experiences of abuse and crime, and a creates prison to college program for arrested youth

Shani Shay smiling on campus

UC Berkeley transfer student Shani Shay took her lived experiences of abuse and crime to create a prison to college program for arrested youth. (Photo by Sergio Gomez/Camerawerkz)

This I’m A Berkeleyan feature was written as a first-person narrative from an interview with Shani Shay. Have someone you think we should write about? Contact [email protected].

Many of us throughout the pandemic are going through trauma. And we are all dealing with it in different ways.

As the founder and coordinator of UC Berkeley’s Incarceration to College program, throughout the pandemic I have focused on teaching life skills classes that expose opportunities and resources to students arrested in Contra Costa and Alameda county jails and juvenile halls.

These are often students that come from broken homes, lived on the streets and, from a young age, have been abused on so many levels.

I realize, though, that I have spent so much time working with incarcerated students and people that I rarely get to honor the severe trauma and domestic violence I experienced throughout my life.

And the negative decisions I made because of that trauma.

It is something that is hard to talk about, but I’ve come to realize that sometimes people need inspiration through stories they can relate to. And currently, as a student here, I also understand that my lived experiences are also part of my educational journey. So, if sharing them can give future students hope they can change their lives — it’s worth it.

I was born and raised in Puna, Hawaii. It is a beautiful island. I remember spending a lot of time playing in waterfalls and building sandcastles on the beach as a child.

Shot of swimming hole in Puna, Hawaii

Located on the eastside of Hawaii’s Big Island, Puna was where Shay grew up. She experienced racial violence that made her want to move away. (Photo courtesy of dolanh/flickr)

But as I got older, my brothers and I experienced a high level of racial violence in our neighborhood. I developed a lot of anger because of the way we were treated.

And if someone ran up on me and called me “the N-word,” I would transform that anger into violent retaliation. I was taught that it was OK to be mad, that, in fact, you should be mad when people treat you that way.

When I was 15, my dad and I moved to Emeryville in the Bay Area where we lived with relatives. I started going to Berkeley High School, and I did really well my first semester getting straight A’s.

The next semester I met my boyfriend at the time. I only went to school maybe 30 days that entire semester.

I was young and thought I was in love, even though he was physically abusing me. Looking back, I realize I was too afraid to leave him, and ironically, despite getting beaten, that fear made me want to stay with him even more.

Despite those issues, I actually graduated with my high school diploma a year early. But at that point, school was no longer a priority for me.

I realize I was too afraid to leave him, and ironically, despite getting beaten, that fear made me want to stay with him even more.”

I didn’t want to go to college, but my mom, who was a high school teacher, pushed me into applying. I got accepted to UC Davis, but I wanted to be closer to where my boyfriend was, so I went to Cal State East Bay.

At the time, I still had a lot of unresolved anger issues. I was 17, living in the dorms and given all of these privileges I wasn’t used to. During my second quarter, I got suspended for getting into a fight at a party with another student. It was over something frivolous.

No one was badly hurt, and no criminal charges were made. But the dean’s office required me to take anger management classes.

I ended up going back to Hawaii to be with my family to kind of recoup. I worked a few jobs to save up money because I eventually wanted to move back to live with my boyfriend — even though he continued to physically abuse me.

The whole situation became habitual.

I remember he knocked my teeth out and broke my ribs in front of my child. He would do this time and time again on a weekly basis.”

Through him, I began getting connected to a life that I really didn’t want for myself. I started stripping in San Francisco by using a fake ID he got for me. I didn’t really like it, so I eventually quit. But I was exposed to these environments and people who were doing a lot of negative things.

I started stealing people’s credit cards when I was 18 years old, and I would do that for 10 years to survive financially. All through this time, I’m still being abused, but I’m also going in and out of jail because of the fraud I committed.

When I was 24, I had my daughter, so I needed even more money to support her. But my abuser was using me, and it came to a point where our relationship became based only on finances.

He would viciously beat me and take the money I would get from the hustle.

I remember he knocked my teeth out and broke my ribs in front of my child. He would do this time and time again on a weekly basis. I was literally in this perpetual state of survival: How do I support myself? How do I get out of this kind of situation?

One of the last times I went to jail, my daughter was 7 months old, and I missed her first birthday. It was the hardest thing I have ever experienced being away from her.

Once I was released after my last 10-month stint in county, I began to really ask myself some pragmatic questions: Is the way that I’m living really supporting the dreams and desires I have for myself and my family? Is this the type of person I see myself as, forever?

The answers, obviously, were — no.

I cried a few times while writing my personal statement, just thinking about everything I had been through. It was so cathartic.”

I decided to leave that type of life behind. I quit grinding on the streets, and my prison sentence was lessened because I was enrolled in school at Laney College.

I started working at a diner in Berkeley while taking classes at Laney and moved away from my abuser. I changed all the little things that were holding me back, and that built my confidence up. I began volunteering for a local housing rights community group and was once again a straight A student.

When I applied to Berkeley, I remember that I cried a few times while writing my personal statement, just thinking about everything I had been through.

It was so cathartic.

I realized that I was so young, and living through a traumatic experience skewed my mental and emotional development. It was hard to escape the situation because I couldn’t see beyond it. There was no hope, and at the end of the day, all I really needed was someone to help me.

That is now the impetus in my life that moves me forward. Just trying to be a person of integrity and finding a way to help the type of people that I used to be.

As an African American studies major and education minor, I began attending Berkeley a few months before the pandemic began. In that short time, campus resources like NavCal and the Underground Scholars Initiative really set me up for success.

Underground Scholars actually helped me during my application process, giving me advice and inviting me to their gatherings where I got to know students, staff and faculty before I even became a student. It’s a community where I don’t have to worry about talking about my life experiences because everybody knows what’s up.

Shani Shay laughing with her Underground Scholar colleagues

Shay, center, in white, laughs during a photoshoot with fellow UC Berkeley Underground Scholars leaders. “They make me comfortable to bring my whole self to campus,” she said. (Photo by Sergio Gomez/Camerawerkz)

I got more involved with the group by going to different prisons and juvenile halls around the area to talk to arrested youth stuck in the criminal justice system.

A lot of them reminded me of myself at that age.

These young kids tend to have to do things all by themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that. But somebody experiencing abuse and trauma at a young age is already starting at a deficit in a system of meritocracy.

It’s a system that doesn’t leave a lot of space for them to succeed. To be honest, it makes it very difficult for you to even breathe.

I think the real catalyst to change their lives is for them to see themselves through the eyes of other people. I remember being in their shoes and listening to people give speeches saying, “I could do it, so you can do it, too,” type of thing. But these people got to go home after saying all this and never come back.

They gave us the lecture, but they didn’t give us the tools to move forward.

Somebody experiencing abuse and trauma at a young age is already starting at a deficit in a system of meritocracy… it makes it very difficult for you to even breathe.”

In spring 2020, I met with around 20 young Black and brown youth that were incarcerated at Martinez Juvenile Hall, and it inspired me to create the Incarceration to College program with Underground Scholars.

Through the program, I meet with students — over Zoom or at the facility —  that get arrested in Contra Costa County within 48 hours of being incarcerated. I give them a presentation on how our program can help them get on the track to higher education.

Once we’ve connected with the students, along with help from other Underground Scholars, I teach classes over Zoom where we help them work on life skills, college applications, financial aid assistance and writing personal statements.

We also try to open their eyes to new opportunities, like traveling through nonprofit organizations and work-study programs and internships.

The reality is, since the second grade, people have told them that they’re not going to do nothing but go to jail, die or work in some field that’s not going to require them to have any knowledge.

So, our program is about letting them know early on that, “Hey, there is actually opportunity for you, and we have been through the same things you are going through … and we want to support you.”

Through her own YouTube channel, Shay produces shows to open the dialogue around the experiences of incarcerated students and people. Here she highlights her formerly incarcerated “Scholar of the Week.”

There’s a level of humanity I try to bring to this work. These kids are not statistics, they are human beings that just need help to overcome the deficit society has dealt them.

We are currently serving close to 100 students in Contra Costa and Alameda counties. Our curriculum has also been certified for students to use as transfer credits to college. The goal is to replicate the classes with other previously incarcerated instructors to create a chain reaction.

It may take some time, but we’re raising funds to help expand the program. We’ve had some support from the campus community, including ASUC members Chaka Tellem and Jason Dones. Faculty members like African American studies professor Nikki Jones and Dr. Travis Bristol have also been encouraging.

Shani Shay smiling

Shay said she is hopeful that more resources will be given to incarcerated students. “Their lives are too important to waste.” (Photo courtesy of Underground Scholars)

Eventually, I want to be able to pay the students like an internship that leads to admission into a college. I see it as a crucial investment in the future.

Their lives are too important to waste.

As a Berkeley student going to school, raising my kids and doing this type of work, I feel like there should be people that are way more educated than me doing this, and Berkeley should be creating space for more institutional support for programs like ours.

But at the end of the day, my lived experiences and my story help me to relate to the students I want to help.

Berkeley has helped me to find that purpose within myself. And I hope more people understand how important these students are.