After graduating from high school, Romarilyn Ralston got married, had children and spent four years working as a jet engine mechanic for the U.S. Navy. In her mind, she was on her way to achieving the American dream: A family and a white picket fence.
However, her relationship was abusive, she got involved with “the wrong people” and began doing drugs.
She brought her husband along when she began working with the Navy, despite the job having been her escape from him, because she believed they could reconcile and get better.
“My whole life was flipped upside down. I started to think about myself differently, I lost confidence and value in myself,” Ralston said. “Sometimes you’re spiraling down so fast, you can’t stop the process.”
In 1989, Ralston began serving a 23-year sentence at the California Institution for Women for committing a violent crime, her first offense. She was 24 years old when she went in, and would not be paroled until 2011.
“For many years I sat in prison thinking ‘what am I going to do when I get out? No one will want to hire me, there’s not going to be a space for me,’” Ralston said. “Education is that space for me.”
In 2005, she and a number of other inmates reached out to the institute’s warden about putting a program in place for students from the Claremont Colleges to come and mentor younger women while they served their time.
When she was paroled, she reached out to some of the professors she met as a result of the program, who advocated for her to apply to Pitzer College. At Pitzer she received her undergraduate degree before going to Washington University in St. Louis to earn a master’s degree in liberal arts.
“We’re able to look at our lived experiences as a way to teach people about some of the social ills of society and some of the subcultures within society. The carceral system is one of those things,” Ralston said. “I was able to do that and give back and move on, and now I’m here. Still attached to the criminal justice system, but in a good way.”
In fall 2016, Ralston was hired to be the program coordinator for the CSUF branch of Project Rebound, which was just getting its start under the direction of philosophy professor Brady Heiner, Ph.D.
“We somewhat act like a re-entry program because our population that we serve is formerly incarcerated students,” Ralston said. “All of our students have some kind of justice involvement or incarceration experience, whether as a juvenile or through county, state or federal prisons.”
She said Project Rebound offers previously incarcerated student services like book stipends and meal support, a space to call their own and allies on campus to help navigate a college environment. There were 14 students in the program as of November 2017.
“It’s been a safe spot, an existential spot. I know people here who also have this scarlet letter, so we share that,” said fifth-year human services major Robert Duesler, a Rebound scholar since the program began at CSUF.
Duesler served as a student intern for the program during the spring and summer semester of 2017, where he said he reached a rapport “almost immediately” with Ralston due to their similar experiences.
He isn’t the only one.
“Romarilyn is a godsend. She understands. She’s been where we’ve been, and she’s there to help us along the way,” said human services major Charles Fagan, who became a Rebound scholar a few months ago. “She’s kind of the mom of Project Rebound, and she doesn’t let you forget when you’re needed.”
Fagan said that under Ralston, the program has been the kind of support he needed.
“I learned that there are good people in the world that support people who are trying to make a difference in their lives, and that are trying to rebound, come back, from where they’ve been,” Fagan said.
Ralston’s influence extends beyond just the previously incarcerated students involved in the program as well.
“When I first met her I was so scared and intimidated because she has such a strong presence about her… Then she gave me a hug,” said CSUF alumna Kelsey Loup. “She’s powerful and she’s strong and she’s making an impact on these people and on me.”
Loup volunteers for Project Rebound, responding to letters from incarcerated individuals looking to become involved in the program and tutoring Rebound scholars. She had no experience with the prison system before joining the program and felt the opportunity has been “irreplaceable.”
“You have this idea when you enter a program like this, and then when you work with these students and you see them and you meet them and you learn their stories, it’s so different,” Loup said. “You find out all these things that completely debunk what you thought.”
The work Project Rebound does is “challenging but also critical” to promoting equity and social justice, said Millie Aranda, the program coordinator of Bold Women’s Leadership Network, whose workspace is next to Ralston’s on the sixth floor of Langsdorf Hall.
“She is passionate, but incredibly intelligent. She’s a gifted writer and she has been a transformative force through the work she’s doing here at Cal State Fullerton,” Aranda said.
Ralston said she sees Project Rebound, in part, as her opportunity to give back to those in a similar position that she was in.
“This job allows me to share my experience and help other people who are looking for higher education as their transformative practice to be more successful,” she said.
Despite having found a place to belong, Ralston said 2018 will be 30 years after she committed her crime. It’s a moment in her life that she will never forget.
“It’s something that I think about a lot, it motivates and drives me,” Ralston said. “It changed my life, as well as the lives of those that were hurt by my actions, and it’s something that I want to sweep under the rug sometimes and keep in the past, but I can’t.”