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Former Donovan State prisoner graduates college with honors, hopes to turn young lives around

At the age of 15, Shawn Khalifa dropped out of high school and was involved with drugs and gangs. In prison, he said he found peace going to church and college.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — While it’s a huge achievement for any young student, a degree from college was literally an escape for Shawn Khalifa.

“My entire life revolved around institutions,” he said. “To have college come in and identify us as college students versus a prisoner, it rejuvenated my life.”

At the age of 15, Khalifa was a Riverside teen going down the wrong path. He dropped out of high school and was involved with drugs and gangs. That year, he participated in a burglary in which the homeowner was killed. Though he took no part in the homicide, Khalifa was charged with first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

“If you’re around a dangerous felony and didn’t actually commit the murder, you could still be held liable,” said Khalifa “I was prosecuted to the fullest extent at the age of 15 - tried as an adult.”

From juvenile detention to Donovan State Prison, Khalifa was incarcerated for a murder he didn’t commit. Though he was labeled a killer by the state and faced a life sentence, he never gave up hope for a better future.

“The only thing I could look forward to was just to be at peace. I found my peace through going to church, but also found peace through going to college," he said.

Education and positivity are where Shawn found his calling. Not only did he maintain a 4.0 GPA at Southwest while he was incarcerated, but became a role model for his fellow prisoners. A population he said is misunderstood.

“They want to be fed good food. They want opportunities for growth. They want to make their mama’s proud," Khalifa said.

Khalifa’s sentence was commuted by then-Governor Jerry Brown and in February of 2020, the parole board released Shawn from prison. And after graduating from Southwest, Khalifa was accepted to attend SDSU to further his education in Sociology- in hopes he can turn more young lives around.

“I’m going to school, I’m earning degrees and you can do that too. Regardless if you’re sentenced to life or you’re going home tomorrow," he said.

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