Prison to Scholar: CSU Trustees' Award Winner's Journey to Redemption

One of SDSU's Project Rebound students, Jahaziel Snchez, receives award for academic excellence and personal achievement.

Monday, September 18, 2023
Jahaziel Sanchez, joined by his niece (left) and mother, accepts the CSU Trustees' Award during the award's presentation in Long Beach last Tuesday. (Courtesy of Jahaziel Sanchez)
Jahaziel Sanchez, joined by his niece (left) and mother, accepts the CSU Trustees' Award during the award's presentation in Long Beach last Tuesday. (Courtesy of Jahaziel Sanchez)

Jahaziel Sanchez compares his life the past 18 months to a giant mosaic as he creates, piece by piece, the life he wants — one made possible by his thirst for education.

18 months ago, Sanchez was released on parole from the Prado Conservation Camp in Chino after serving more than 11 years of an 18-year prison sentence for second-degree robberies. 

Today, he’s an honors student in accounting at San Diego State University who has started one business and is working on another, co-founded a nonprofit and undertaken undergraduate research. Sanchez reconnected with his family, enjoys sunsets at the beach and says he doesn’t take the little things in life for granted. 

On Sept. 12, Sanchez was one of 23 students in the California State University system recognized with the CSU Trustees' Award for Outstanding Achievement, given each year one student from each of the system’s campuses who demonstrates superior academic performance, personal accomplishments, community service and financial need.

As part of the award, Sanchez will receive a $9,000 scholarship from the John and Beverly Stauffer Foundation.

“The feeling is indescribable,” said Sanchez, 34. “You work diligently, you set goals and work towards achieving them, and suddenly people are rallying around you to make those goals achievable. And then there’s recognition like this that tells you that you’re on the right track. It brings me a lot of joy.”

Sanchez has received praise from across the SDSU community, including from SDSU President Adela de la Torre, who congratulated him for the honor. 

"Jahaziel is a passionate student leader and a powerful example of how access to higher education can be so transformative,” said de la Torre. “Rather than being defined by his past, Jahaziel is determined to use education to create a better life for himself and is committed to helping others do the same. Jahaziel is a very worthy recipient of this award, and we are proud that he is part of the SDSU family."

Sanchez, a South Bay native and 2006 graduate of Otay Ranch High School, saw his thirst for education ignited during his incarceration when he started reading any and every book he could get his hands on as he moved around to various correctional facilities across the state. 

“I had gone to school, but for the first time I said to myself, 'Let's see what we really have,’” Sanchez said. “So I started reading books, the dictionary, I read ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X,’ and he mentioned that he did the same thing, learning every word he could. So I did it.”

He credits his family for giving him the strength to turn his life around while in prison, specifically his mother. 

“She is the embodiment of unconditional love,” Sanchez said. “She’s always there and will always be there, and she’s supported me through all the ups and downs, no questions asked. “When I become a parent, I will strive to be as supportive and committed as she’s been to me.”

Sanchez started to take university courses, earning 10 associate degrees before his release. He was connected with SDSU’s Project Rebound, a special admissions and support program for students transitioning out of prisons and jails, as early as 2018.

“To know that there was a community that was not just waiting for me, but corresponding with me while I was inside, it gave me motivation to keep going,” he said. 

Upon his release, Sanchez’s life has been a blur, full of milestones. 

In 2022, he founded a digital marketing service, Market Acquisition Solutions which serves as a holding company for SD 360 Photo. SD 360 Photo is a licensed and bonded company that specializes in promoting artists, businesses and special events through the use of a high-quality 360-degree photo booth. Sanchez attributes his interest to his desire to learn more about the technological advancements that occurred during his incarceration.

“It’s kind of like being born again,” Sanchez said. “One time in prison I was watching TV and I saw a commercial about a ‘selfie stick,’ and was like ‘What is that?’

“But photography, and event photography, is so amazing because you’re there on these huge life-altering events — weddings, cultural celebrations, anniversaries — and you’re able to capture the emotion on those days,” he said.  

That same year, Project Rebound helped Sanchez to enroll in the Fowler College of Business, where he began his accounting major that fall. He’s currently on the dean’s list and a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, while also mentoring formerly incarcerated individuals as part of Project Rebound.

Sanchez also co-founded a registered nonprofit that aims to assist justice-impacted communities in attaining financial independence through entrepreneurship. Additionally, through the Prison Education Project (PEP) he will begin volunteering his time by going into juvenile detention centers and teaching financial literacy courses. 

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without all of the people in my village, so I feel it’s my duty to be a part of their village and help them to get on the right path even before they leave,” Sanchez said. 

Alan Mobley, the executive director of the Center for Transformative Justice, which oversees Project Rebound, said that Sanchez’s accomplishments — including the CSU honor — are a testament to his determination and reflective of the impact Project Rebound has on its students. 

“It's amazing that Jahaziel is being recognized in this way, as it highlights both his individual work and the incredible work of so many of our Project Rebound students,” said Mobley, who said that Project Rebound students - 72 at SDSU and more than 1,000 in the CSU System - earn grades much higher than CSU system averages, all while facing the difficult transition out of the justice system. “They say ‘it takes a village,’ and I give great credit to our supportive and resilient Rebound community for each student's individual success.

“Besides being an accomplished student and innovative entrepreneur, Jahaziel is a dedicated Rebound Scholar who continually gives back to his community by asking for what he needs and offering what he can. It's that type of honesty, transparency and generosity that makes Project Rebound more than a program, but a family,” Mobley said. 

During his time at SDSU, Sanchez has also been accepted into the Lavin Entrepreneurship Program, a two-year program that gives a select group of sophomores the tools to create, foster and grow their businesses. He’s currently working with SDSU alumni Anna Skulteti and Nick Shanker to develop the trio’s company Tilly One, which produces sustainable female health products. 

He has also gotten involved in undergraduate research with SDSU’s SEMILLAS Research Fellowship Program, which engages underrepresented students in social science research. 

Through SEMILLAS, Sanchez got involved in the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education, attended his first education convention and later this year will be a guest speaker on a symposium panel at the Association for the Study of Higher Education Conference, which will take place Nov. 15-18 – his birthday weekend.

Attending the conference on his birthday will take on added significance as it marks the 13th anniversary of his arrest. 

“Growing up, I would have beautiful birthday celebrations, and then my actions changed the meaning of that day,” Sanchez said. “Now, it’s about reclaiming that day, and my life. Day by day, piece by piece of the mosaic.”

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