By Corey McNeil
The Mount Tamalpais College Alumni Scholarship Program was created to help former Mount Tam College students who have been paroled continue their education in trade schools, community colleges, 4-year colleges, and graduate schools. In 2022, a scholarship awarded its recipients $10,000 each to assist with their education expenses. Amounts in future years may increase based on available funds.
To ensure the process of picking the scholarship winners was fair and equitable Mount Tamalpais College enlisted the help of 10,000 Degrees, which is an organization that administers scholarships and provides college advising. Their mission is to achieve educational equity and support students from low-income backgrounds to and through college to impact their communities and the world positively.
At present, all students who have completed at least six full courses with Mount Tamalpais College (formerly Patten College at San Quentin, Patten University at San Quentin, or the Prison University Project) are eligible to apply.
Mount Tam would like to introduce the first winners of this scholarship; James “JC” Cavitt, John Lam, and Somdeng Danny Thongsy.
Having spent over two decades of his life incarcerated, James Cavitt brings his firsthand experience with the criminal justice system and carceral education system to the California State University System.
Much of JC’s career has been dedicated to working with incarcerated trauma survivors and changing the narratives about imprisoned individuals. In addition, JC is a member of the UnCommon Law Clinical Support Team, where he provides trauma-informed training to staff and counseling support to incarcerated individuals.
“I feel privileged and humbled to have received this award, which will help me achieve my educational goal of getting my Ph.D.,” Cavitt shared.
JC is currently completing his Doctoral degree in Marriage and Family Therapy at Hope International University, Long Beach, in 2022. In addition, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology, with honors, from California State University Fullerton and his Associate of Arts degree from Mount Tamalpais College in San Quentin. He is an Alpha Sigma Lambda honoree, Bickerstaff Graduate Fellow and a Golden Key Honor Society member. Beyond his education is the heart of a volunteer, mediator, social justice advocate and therapist.
JC has been featured in numerous publications, articles, podcasts, and on various media platforms, including a TED Talk with John Legend, TEDx: San Quentin, Now This News, Post-Traumatic Thriving TV series, and CORE IQ educational training videos.
When people experience trauma or severe life stressors it is not uncommon for their lives to unravel. JC’s greatest passion is to help people, make a difference in the world and help change lives for the better.
John Lam is another Mount Tam Alumni Scholarship winner and a first-generation Chinese-American born and raised in Sacramento. At 17, he was sentenced to serve 26 years to life. After 14 years of incarceration his life sentence was commuted by Governor Brown. In 2019, after 15 years of imprisonment, he was paroled to Los Angeles.
He is currently an undergraduate at UC Berkeley majoring in Political Science and attributes his success in getting into Cal to Mount Tamalpais College, which taught him critical thinking skills, reading, and writing — and importantly, instilling a sense of belief he is good enough.
He currently works as a Community Engagement Fellow at the Possibility Lab at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, conducting research and assisting voter registration at the Santa Rita county jail.
As a formerly incarcerated person, he is passionate about utilizing technology and policy to address criminal justice reform. He understands the importance of having people with carceral experiences creating Apps and offering insight at the intersection of policy and technology around housing, employment, education, and access to healthcare. He volunteers with nonprofits from the Bay Area and Southern California to assist formerly incarcerated people in reintegrating into society.
Upon completing his degree, he plans to pursue a Master’s in Public Policy. As a returning citizen in the privileged space of higher education, he deeply appreciates the support of Mt. Tamalpais’ generous scholarship to pay for his education. Without this, John would have had to work multiple jobs to pay for school and incur student loans that would severely hamper his economic well-being for years after graduation.
Scholarship winner Somdeng Danny Thongsy is a formerly incarcerated, low-income and first-generation college student at UC Berkeley majoring in Sociology. He served [nearly] 20 years out of a prison life sentence as a youth offender. Outside of school he is a community advocate fighting for criminal justice reform and immigrant rights.
He was sentenced as a youth offender to serve 27 years to life. However, due to California law changing for youth offenders, after serving 19 years, he was granted parole, but because of his immigration status Danny was transferred to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in August 2017, where he faced deportation.
Danny was released from the custody of ICE in February 2018, after which he was accepted into a transitional/reentry house in Concord, called Rowland’s House, run by the California Reentry Institute.
“Being a low-income, first-generation college student and a formerly incarcerated person of color, this scholarship provides the holistic support I need to help navigate my academic studies,” said Thongsy.
He believes this significant scholarship can help formerly incarcerated and low-income people. Sharing information about this scholarship in the San Quentin News or Mount Tam’s website and newsletter can help spread the word.
Without support, transitioning back into society after being incarcerated can be very challenging. The trauma of incarceration is another challenge. Then you have family reunification, old habits, old friends, old neighborhoods, technology support, financial literacy, relationships, and the need to stay focused and accountable. Thongsy was fortunate to have peer support and community in his reentry, like Asian Prisoners Support Committee, Asian Law Caucus, Bonafide, California Reentry Institute, Laney ROC, and Mount Tamalpais College.
“I appreciate the scholarship and reentry support,” said Thongsy. “With this, I am humbled and appreciative.”