Nearly 100 participants from higher education facilities across the state gathered at UC Merced in January to exchange ideas around a program that pays students to do volunteer work in their communities.
The gathering drew representatives from the UC, CSU, private and community colleges, invited to Merced by Chancellor Juan Sánchez Muñoz. They shared what's working and what could be improved in the College Corps program, launched in January 2022 to create debt-free college pathways for low-income students who commit to serve their communities.
"Our objective is to learn from each other and keep making the program better," said Linda Frey, director of the statewide program. "Every time I talk to (people at) a campus, I learn something."
The initiative was rolled out at 45 campuses, including UC Merced, through a competitive grant process. Its goals, according to the website, are threefold: to create a generation of civic-minded leaders with the ability to bridge divides and solve problems, to help low-income students graduate college on time and with less debt, and to address societal challenges and help build more equitable communities across California.
Through a series of exercises and discussions, participants also were invited to get to know one another.
"It's important to build relationships and trust," Frey said. "What's unique is that we are doing it across different higher education systems."
As of January, there are more than 3,200 students, or fellows, participating in the program, said Alex Lozanoff, senior project manager for WestEd, who shared statistics about the first College Corps cohort. Of those, more than 80% identify as students of color.
"These are students who are traditionally marginalized," Lozanoff said. "We know that these are identities that have not traditionally been well-served by higher education."
The students work with community partners, often nonprofit organizations that already have projects going in the community.
Challenges discussed during the meeting ranged from finding nonprofits that both needed workers and would provide mentorship to the fellows to the practical problems faced, such as transportation.
Stacey Muse of UC Davis represented a consortium of four Sacramento-area college campuses. She said she looks for community partners that are "willing to engage as co-educators. There is a lot of learning happening."
Regarding the latter topic, Chelsea Kefalis of Shasta College said that's a major problem for a campus that serves three counties. One way they have found to handle transportation is providing a gas stipend. Other campuses provide bus passes, or transport students in college-owned vans.
Participants said they were grateful for the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas as the program gets ready for its second cohort.
"Hopefully, this is going to be at least an annual convening," Frey said.
Vernette Doty, director of the UC Merced Community Engagement Center, oversees the College Corps program locally. She moderated a discussion on fellow engagement and retention.
"We are grateful that the chancellor invited campuses to UC Merced for this convening last spring," she said. "It was a great opportunity to share our beautiful campus, and to learn from, and discuss with our peers, the challenges and wins of our programs so far. College Corps is such a great opportunity for students that anything we can do to improve our programs and simplify the processes can only make it better for students as we go into a second cohort year of service."