For Arlinda Ruiz the road to higher education was not an easy one. A 45-year-old domestic violence survivor, she worried there wouldn’t be a place for her in the world of academia.
“I’m this short Mexican girl, dark, Indigenous, blasted up with tattoos,” Ruiz says. “I was homeless at 13, a teen mom, a high school dropout. … I didn’t really see much of a future for myself.”
After ending an abusive marriage, however, Ruiz decided to pursue her collegiate ambitions. Through UC Berkeley’s Stiles Hall, she found the Underground Scholars Initiative, which offers academic support to formerly incarcerated and other “system-impacted individuals” like Ruiz. Now, with new friends and mentors to guide her, she is earning a degree in social welfare and plans to attend graduate school. “I found a community that isn’t willing to settle. [We’re] pushing barriers, and I’m so thankful to be part of that crusade.”
A private nonprofit located across the street from campus, Stiles Hall has served under-represented students and community members for nearly 140 years. Since its inception in 1884, Stiles—originally the Berkeley YMCA—has dedicated itself to addressing the ever-changing needs of California’s most vulnerable.
During World War II, Stiles’s then-General Secretary Harry Kingman helped dozens of Japanese American students escape internment by relocating them to schools in other parts of the country. Kingman, known to some for his short-lived career with the New York Yankees, also initiated the Berkeley Student Cooperative in an effort to combat the city’s deeply segregated housing system.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Stiles served as a megaphone for marginalized voices. Before there was a Free Speech Movement at Cal, Stiles opened its doors to those considered too radical to speak on campus, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
For over two decades, Stiles has focused on helping more Black and brown students get into college. In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 209, prohibiting public universities from considering race in admissions processes and limiting their ability to build student bodies representative of the state’s racial makeup. In response, Stiles created the Experience Berkeley Program, which helps students from underserved and under-represented groups apply to top colleges.
Every year, Experience Berkeley accepts about 120 high school juniors and 120 transfer students from all over California into its mentorship programs. According to one of the program directors, Jonathan Nussur, more than 50 percent of the mentees in recent cohorts gained admission to Cal.
Executive Director David Stark describes Stiles as an “incubator for small initiatives that grow, spin off, and change the world.” Both he and Nussur hope that programs like Experience Berkeley and Underground Scholars will one day become their own independent organizations—or succeed so completely that they are no longer necessary.
Occasionally, members of Stiles’s Board of Directors—which includes Board President Ana Jackson, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Berkeley Law Professor john powell, and Judge Thelton Henderson—offer career advice to Stiles mentees. Henderson, for example, has been known to invite prospective law students to his office to discuss their ambitions over sandwiches.
Such meetings have been put on hold for now. In keeping with COVID-19 regulations, Stiles has temporarily closed its doors.
On a typical, pre-pandemic day, Stark says the building would be buzzing. Students would pop in between classes to chat, study, or meditate. In the evenings, clubs would meet at Stiles to watch movies, plan community service events, hold discussions, or share meals together. To many, Stiles’s “living room” atmosphere provided refuge from the stresses of college life. Now, Stiles—housed inside the new David Blackwell Hall on the corner of Dana Street and Bancroft Way—sits empty, awaiting their return.
Stiles’s staff continue to run programs virtually to help students stay motivated. They also plan to launch a YouTube channel early next year with videos covering topics such as undergraduate research, internship opportunities for undocumented students, and financial literacy. Nussur hopes that with new online tools, Stiles will be able to reach more students than ever before.
In the meantime, those who used to frequent Stiles miss the physical space. “All I ever wanted was somewhere that I was safe,” says Ruiz. “A place where I can rest my head, where my children could be safe.” For her, Stiles Hall was that place. She hopes it will be again soon.