Fellow Program Brings Hope To Students And Their Parents

Financing May 2021 PREMIUM
Jade Reyes has a youthful appearance for a college senior.

That youthful look serves her well when she’s mentoring low-income teens through California Lutheran University’s AmeriCorps Civic Action Fellows program. “A lot of the kids think I’m also a teen. I’ve managed to build a really comfortable relationship with the teens I work with,” says Reyes. They view her more as a peer than a mentor.

Cal Lutheran is one of eight universities partnering with the state of California to help college students pay for college in exchange for public service that targets pressing regional challenges. Each fellow in Cal Lutheran’s inaugural corps of 20 spends 25 hours a week over a 22-week period serving the community with local nonprofit organizations. In exchange the fellows receive valuable experience and up to $7,900 from the state and federal governments.

As an AmeriCorps fellow, Reyes is working with the Safe Passage Youth Foundation. “Their motto is Changing At Risk to At Promise. The goal is to support children and their families in the community,” says Reyes, who will graduate with a degree in psychology in May. Safe Passage provides mentoring, STEM classes, day camps, free groceries, tutoring, and more.

Another fellow, Hennessy Muñoz, is a sophomore at Cal Lutheran. She works with low-income youth through the TRIO Pre-University Program, which provides first-generation college students fundamental support as they prepare to enter college. Muñoz, who is studying biochemistry, helps coordinate events, checks in on students, and presents workshops. She is an alum of the Trio Program.

Ariana Avila Torres, who is finishing up her junior year at Cal Lutheran with a double major in education and Spanish, is interning at Oxnard College though the AmeriCorps program. She works with the student government office and basic needs initiative. “I spend a lot of my time working towards creating holistic learning on campus and helping to facilitate a campus community where students feel encouraged and safe,” she says. 

Creating a New Attitude

The primary goal of the AmeriCorps Civic Action Fellows program is to create an attitude within the community, one that encourages residents to tap community resources rather than seeking assistance from outside the community. “So a community can be self-sufficient…rather than depending on the government,” says Reyes.

Since starting her internship, Avila Torres has developed a “critical lens” regarding community assistance. “A community knows what they want and need. They will 100 percent of the time know better than anyone else,” says Avila Torres. She’s convinced that if she and other service workers like her do their jobs effectively, eventually the community will no longer require their assistance.

Before the fellows begin working with the low-income students and their families they take a mandatory one-unit course in the fall that prepares them for their roles in the program. As they work through the 22-week program they take yet another class that focuses on racism in education. While in the field they are required to take careful notes. “The end goal is for us to write an autoethnography about how racism affects the educational system,” says Muñoz.

Offering Hope

As sometimes happens with new relationships, the one Muñoz attempted to forge with her students started off on shaky ground. She tried several strategies to make her students feel more comfortable, but none seemed to work. Finally she offered a virtual book club for middle and high schoolers. The club was halfway through The Outsiders when Muñoz designed an activity in which students had to draw the characters in the book and share their drawings with the rest of the group virtually. “There was this one student who usually kept her camera off, but she turned it on for just this one moment to show her drawing. It was amazing to see her smile,” says Muñoz.

Many of the students Reyes works with are recent arrivals. She helps them tweak their resumes and tutors them right on their front porches. Some have difficulty grasping math concepts while others carry baggage that requires input from an adult. With nowhere left to turn one thirteen-year-old girl approached Reyes indicating she’d been assaulted. “It’s a really young age to be experiencing something like that. She was talking about how she wasn’t even happy anymore…. She was looking for resources,” says Reyes. Reyes could sympathize with the teen, since she herself is the product of a “household that was not conducive to making my mental health the best it could be,” she says.

Reyes bared her soul to the child, sharing her personal experiences and feelings. Through this exchange the teen came to realize that there was hope and things would get better. “(She said to me) you’re doing really well. And I said, ‘because once you figure out how to take back your power, everything’s in your control, everything,’” says Reyes.

The Money’s Good, but the Satisfaction is Better

The AmeriCorps fellows receive a living stipend for their participation in the program. “It’s a lot of money and I’m appreciative. I pay for college myself because my family can’t afford it so having this sum of money to help pay off the upcoming years really helps a lot,” says Muñoz.

The financial aid is particularly important to Reyes, who is currently taking 16 units, owns a home with her boyfriend, works a job, and dedicates 25 hours to AmeriCorps. “I don’t feel stressed about how I’m going to pay for my portion of the mortgage,” says Reyes.

The stipend is helpful, but there may be more to it than that. Helping individuals within her community, has always brought Muñoz a sense of pleasure. And these days, support is even more important. “It’s difficult to find that support. Everybody has to stay distanced from each other so everybody can be healthy and safe,” says Muñoz

Growing up Muñoz attended schools in both Texas and California and has always been savvy enough to know there was a difference between the two state educational systems. Through her participation in the AmeriCorps program, she understands why there was a difference and that understanding has spurred her into action. “It’s really empowered me to want to make a change or at least to bring awareness that there is a difference and that there needs to be a change to (level the ground) for all students,” says Muñoz.

Muñoz has always known racism plays a role in education. But it wasn’t until she joined the AmeriCorps program and witnessed that racism first-hand that she realized the extent of it. “It’s really opened my eyes,” says Muñoz

Avila Torres is encouraged when she sees the rising innovative leaders the AmeriCorps program is creating and believes they will have a positive effect on American education. “We need these leaders because there are still many flaws in our educational system. Inequities are happening with no accountability. This generation will step forward and step up time and time again. From my work I can say we don’t plan on stopping until we feel equitable practices in every space,” says Avila Torres. 

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