By Edward Henderson
California Black Media
Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state’s #CaliforniansForAll College Corps program which has so far provided $10,000 grants to some 6,500 low-income college students as a stipend in exchange for their community service work.
Nearly a year after the paid-service program was announced, the governor’s office is praising its impact on communities and the lives of the students who participate in it.
“The program has proven to be a transformative experience for both students and the organizations where they work,” said Sandy Close, director of Ethnic Media Services, who recently moderated a press briefing to inform the public about the program’s contribution and some of the challenges it has faced.
The event, co-hosted by California Black Media, featured stakeholders representing all aspects of the program talking about their experiences.
“I feel like I’ve gone from being a student who once desperately needed a safe space to learn to being the trusted adult who can provide students with a natural learning environment where they each have a deep sense of belonging, knowing they are seen, heard, supported and valued,” said Emilio Ruiz, a 24-year-old student pursuing his teaching certification.
Ruiz shared his experiences as a College Corps fellow. He said his upbringing as a child of divorced parents — constantly moving, experiencing financial distress and witnessing domestic abuse — spurred his desire for a safe space to learn and grow.
College Corps, Ruiz says, gave him an opportunity to receive his education without the added stress of taking on financial aid debt. Moreover, he gained practical experience while doing service-oriented work in his community.
College Corps is a state initiative that addresses “societal challenges” by creating a generation of civic-minded leaders from low-income families. Its programs focus on challenges facing California like climate resilience and economic inequality.
According to the governor’s office, Black and Latino students have the highest rates of student loan default and owe an estimated $147 billion in college loan debt.
In Long Beach, Project Optimism, currently hosts two College Corps fellows from CSU Long Beach (CSULB). Both are first generation college students. One is undocumented.
According to Ishmael Pruitt, CEO and cofounder, Project Optimism is a nonprofit that supports equitable access to nature and environmental justice education to elementary school-aged children within the Long Beach Unified School District. It focuses on mentorship, empowerment, uniting community engagement (including food insecurity) and personal development.
“We are big on mentoring the mentor,” said Pruitt. “Every intern and employee gets mentored by me, one of the other directors, or someone from our board. So, they get direct coaching and support beyond their role working with us.”
Beth Manke is a program lead at CSULB. She matches College Corps students with the non-profit organizations they are assigned to for the program. Manke currently supervises 50 undergraduate students, completing 450 hours of work for 27 different organizations.
“We envision the service they are completing as internships. These are experiences that have proven to be quite transformative for our students,” said Manke. “We honor and draw on the students’ cultural backgrounds by acknowledging their life experiences and how they shape their academic success and well-being.”
The briefing also focused on the challenges students are facing on college campuses post-pandemic and how College Corps can help alleviate some of those issues.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith, a clinical psychologist and Diversity Lead of Student Life at the University of Washington spoke about some of the mental health challenges students are facing and avenues for healing.
“Anxiety is a leading factor for folks on college campuses,” said Dr. Briscoe-Smith. “There was an escalation for students with mental health challenges pre-pandemic. We are finding we are anticipating beating levels of worsening mental health on campus. Many clinicians are hearing challenges of hopelessness, purposelessness, and isolation. Finding purpose through service is something that can be very helpful. The skills that you’re learning and to be able to see yourself in the folks that you serve is an amazing opportunity for transformation and connection.”
Josh Fryday, California’s Chief Service Officer, introduced the College Corps program a year ago and closed the event with remarks about the hope service can provide.
“When it comes to creating and fostering hope, what we know is that it’s so much more than creating a belief. It’s about action. It’s about a plan. It’s about having a real path for change. That’s what people are looking for. We are seeing the impact in the first nine months. It gives me hope, the governor hope, and we know it’s going to bring hope to our entire state for many years to come.”
Eighty percent of students in the Corps are self-identified students of color and 70% are Pell grant recipients. Five hundred undocumented dreamers throughout the state of California participate in the program.
For more information on College Corps and applying to be a fellow, visit California Volunteers (https://www.californiavolunteers.ca.gov/californiansforall-college-corps-for-college-students/).