When he was just 19, Antonio Reza found himself behind bars after being convicted of a felony–second-degree armed robbery. In 2012, he was released from jail with a strike, but he was determined to not become a statistic. Seeing his newfound freedom as a second opportunity, he enrolled at Ohlone College in 2013 and went on to earn three associate degrees before transferring to the University of San Francisco. In 2018, he graduated from USF as valedictorian with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies, minoring in legal studies and sociology. In his TEDx Talk, From Felonies to 4.0s, Reza shares his story and how he’s using his experiences to not only better his own life but to inspire others around him.
Reza just completed his first semester of law school at Santa Clara Law. In addition to staying on top of his studies, he has given talks and participated in panels to help others learn from his experience, including attending the Equal Justice Works conference in Washington DC, where he promoted the National Justice Impacted Bar Association (NJIBA), a group for lawyers and law students who have been incarcerated. This semester, he will be speaking on panels at Yale Law School and UCLA, and he is working on research projects with Professor Colleen Chien. In the summer, Reza looks forward to studying abroad in Oxford as well as continuing his outreach work with NJIBA.
Please describe the moment in your life when you decided to turn your life around. Where did you find the hope and courage to make that decision?
I didn’t necessarily have A MOMENT in my life that I decided to turn it around. It came in the form of a lot of little decisions that added up to me making a positive future for myself.
I didn’t necessarily have hope or courage. I had oppositional defiance and anger. I was mad at the situation I had put myself in, and I was enraged by the lack of opportunities available to me upon release. I went to college out of spite and oppositional defiance. When I was there, I gave it a good faith effort, and I realized that I was capable.
Who supported you in your goals?
I had support from my mom. Our relationship got a lot better after my incarceration. She no longer disciplined me or tried to–instead she would let the correctional system handle me and that allowed our relationship to mend and grow.
I have also received support from some surprising places. For instance, I met Judge Hing nine years ago during a felony case–my felony case. Judge Hing was the judge that sentenced me all those years ago. I will never forget how kind and respectful he was to me despite the circumstances. He told me that he hoped I would turn my life around, wished me luck, and said a few more kind words. We recently reunited after all those years. I brought him up to date with what I have been doing post-incarceration, including going to Santa Clara Law, giving a TEDx talk, and more. Just being with him and talking was surreal for me.
I am also grateful to detective Michael Gebhard, who arrested and interrogated me. He has been a huge support for me almost immediately post-release. He wrote a letter of recommendation for me to go to law school, and he has always encouraged and supported me to go after my goals. He also wrote me a permission slip to go on a field trip for my criminology class to San Quintin because I originally didn’t pass the background clearance. When I gave my valedictory address at USF, he was one of the people in the audience.
How did you choose Santa Clara Law?
I chose Santa Clara for a variety of reasons, first and foremost being the people. The admissions staff really worked hard recruiting me, and that made a difference. Respect is huge for me, and the fact that they were respectful, kind, considerate, supportive, generous, and just good people all around–that mattered to me when it came time to decide. It wasn’t just the admissions team that helped pull me in this direction, it was also the faculty. I had email conversations with several professors, including Professor Goldman, Professor Pope, and Professor Sandoval, as well as Dean Flynn. I also had coffee with Professor Ball. All of these were positive interactions and experiences that showed me firsthand the types of people I would be working with, for, and surrounded by. Early on, I could tell that the community at Santa Clara Law was special. Lastly, the financial aid and scholarship package that I received made my decision much easier when I was weighing my options.
How has the Santa Clara Law community supported and encouraged you in your path?
In the past, with my record, I had to stay hidden–or I chose to–because of the negative stigma that comes along with a record, especially when it is accompanied by the label of felon. At Santa Clara Law, the community hasn’t demonized me because of it, but instead, it values me as the man I am today and encourages me to keep striving for greatness. Not being viewed as a monster and being accepted for who I am means so much to me because it allows me to just be a normal student. With this acceptance, I am allowed to bring who I am to the classroom in its entirety, not having to hide a huge part of my identity and past. Everyone here–from students to faculty–has supported and encouraged me in all my endeavors along with lending a helping hand or giving advice on what steps to take next to accomplish my goals. Santa Clara Law is already such a special place for me, and it goes much deeper than the knowledge I am gaining as a 1L.
What have you found most challenging about the path to becoming a lawyer?
I have been challenged by the lack of knowledge that is out there. I was told that, due to my record, I wouldn’t be admitted into law school. When I got clarity on that, I was told that even if I was admitted into a law school, there is no way that the Bar would admit me because of my past. It wasn’t until I found out about some amazing people who have records and are current lawyers and law professors that I knew my dream was possible. I bought their books, watched their interviews, and knew that I wasn’t alone, which was one of the most comforting things to know. I have since gotten into contact with every single one of those people who inspired me to push forward with my goal to become a lawyer. At first, I was starstruck by them, but now I have a really good relationship with most of them, and we enjoy talking about making changes to laws that disenfranchise felons.
What advice do you have for others who have criminal records who want to change their lives?
It is possible, but it will be difficult. There are many people who want you to fail and will always judge you based on your past, but there are also many people who want you to succeed and will be proud of you. You are capable, you are smart, your fight is not done once you are released, and it will be an uphill battle, but it is possible. I’m not just talking about it, I am being about it. You are not alone! There are so many formerly incarcerated people not just surviving upon release but thriving. We have a unique support network for one another. There is no shame in asking for help, especially from someone who truly understands. You are not alone. It is in the million little decisions that will amount to you being a changed person. It is ok if you make mistakes–I know that I still do–but I believe in you and there are a lot of other people who want to see you succeed.
Is there anything else you would like to say to alumni and friends of the Law School?
Santa Clara Law is on the upswing. Fellow Broncos, I know that my class and the students who are currently here are amazing and will help our school continue our climb upward in the rankings. To the Santa Clara Law donors, I say: keep doing it. I was awarded a generous scholarship, and it truly made a difference for me. I am so very thankful for that, and I know scholarships like mine would not be possible without the help and support from alumni and friends. It does make a difference, so I want to thank you even though I don’t know you, yet.