Sambo Lorn returned to the Santa Ana Jail on Tuesday, a month after being released, but this time it was to celebrate.
Lorn was one of seven graduates of a pilot program offered by Santa Ana College that allows inmates to take courses and earn credits transferable to colleges and universities.
Lorn, 29, who came from Cambodia in 1984, said his failure to understand U.S. culture was part of the reason for his run-ins with the law, starting with a fight in high school and eventually leading to a manslaughter conviction in 1992. He also was in the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service for three years because he did not have a green card.
The jail classes "helped me understand people and the differences in cultures," he said Tuesday, beaming as he looked at his graduation certificate.
The first students completed two college courses: Introduction to Sociology and Marriage and Family, both of which transfer to most colleges under the Inmate Distance Education program.
Classes require as many hours as sessions at colleges and universities, but there are no instructors, so program participants must be self-motivated. Students gather in a classroom, watch a videotape and follow the instructions. On exam days, a facilitator passes out the tests, supervises and collects the materials, which go to a professor at Santa Ana College for grading.
Officials launched the program this year after some inmates complained of a lack of educational opportunities after they had finished the high school equivalency exam and taken all available noncredit college classes. The summer session, which starts June 23 and is limited to 16 inmates, is so popular it has a waiting list of 25 people.
Pablo Enriquez, 28, of Santa Ana became the first in his family to take college courses. He had dropped out of school in seventh grade. "I've never done anything with my life, never studied before, so this is really exciting," said Enriquez, who is married and has 9-year-old twins, a son and a daughter. "I kept remembering what my friend told me: to never let a day go away without learning something new. It was a struggle, but it paid off."