A California CollegeCorps member works with local students. (California Volunteers)

Wendi Lizola was struggling.

The Sacramento State University student had difficulty paying her rent during her freshman year. Lizola grew up in Modesto, the city of a quarter million in the heart of California’s agriculturally rich central valley, an hour’s drive from Sacramento, but the pre-nursing student was born in Michoacán, Mexico, and is undocumented. 

Although her two older sisters are among the so-called Dreamers, which means they have work permits, Lizola was only 14 the last time the federal DACA program (Deferred Action for Children Arrivals) accepted applications, making her ineligible for its benefits. As an undocumented college student, she could not find a job, much less a meaningful experience for her résumé. 

But relief came in the form of a referral from her older sisters, who had heard of a new statewide program, CollegeCorps, which provides California’s postsecondary students financial aid in exchange for community service. Lizola was thrilled when she learned that undocumented students could join the program. She applied in May, was accepted, and is now in her second year at “Sac State.” Lizola even earns credits for tutoring math three times a week at a local middle school. In exchange, the state of California wrote her a check for $10,000, meeting her housing costs and giving the aspiring pediatric nurse invaluable experience working with kids. “I was nervous about it because I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s middle school students—they’re brutal,’” she recalls. “But surprisingly, I love it!”

When teachers referred one student to Lizola for math help, Lizola could tell the child was reluctant to go. But by the end of their tutoring session, Lizola says, the student was much more comfortable with the content—and was already asking if Lizola would be back the next day to help her again.

“It’s nice to know that they like me and want to work with me,” she says.

Lizola’s positive experience with CollegeCorps is being replicated widely. The program currently helps more than 3,200 students in exchange for their service, easing their financial pressures and creating a small army dedicated to community-centered work, particularly regarding learning gaps in local schools.

CollegeCorps is the brainchild of California’s chief service officer, Josh Fryday, who leads California Volunteers, the governor’s office that oversees the state’s many volunteer programs. After launching successful initiatives like the California Climate Action Corps—which combined federal AmeriCorps funding with state revenue to create a paid fellowship for Californians to work with climate-focused organizations—Fryday and his team were looking to scale up their service work. Partnering with the state’s vast higher education network seemed like a ripe opportunity to help communities and students.

“The message we’re sending is, if you’re willing to serve your community, we’re willing to help you pay for college,” Fryday says.

CollegeCorps members must commit to 450 hours of community service over an academic year in exchange for $10,000—a sum that was chosen because, for a Pell Grant recipient in California, $10,000 is the expected family contribution after financial aid for a student, who usually meets that gap by borrowing or working. 

Allowing Dreamers to join CollegeCorps is a huge benefit. Even with DACA, they cannot receive federal financial aid. The federal AmeriCorps Segal Education Award covers $1,600 per student, but the state pays $8,400. For undocumented students, California foots the entire bill. 

Making CollegeCorps work is personal for Fryday, a Pell Grant recipient at the University of California, Berkeley, who worked at a golf course, cleaning carts to pay for the remainder of his tuition. But he would rather have done something impactful in San Francisco’s East Bay. 

For Alberto Lara Conejo, a junior pre-nursing student at Cuesta College, his CollegeCorps placement in an after-school program helping struggling students is building his communication skills. The Dreamer is grateful that he can get paid for work that helps others and helps fuel his education: “I most likely wouldn’t have been able to do it if it wasn’t for the financial component,” he says.

Assignments are left to the higher ed institutions, which place CollegeCorps members at partner organizations, usually ones that the school works with already. The program must deal with at least one of three urgent challenges facing California: climate action, food insecurity, or, the most common one, education. Corps members not only tutor students but might be enlisted in composting programs or aiding in food distribution centers for low-income Californians. They can also participate in events and development opportunities at “regional hubs,” allowing them to build an esprit de corps with members from other colleges in their area. The bonding is crucial, hopefully strengthening democracy and weakening tribalism by allowing community members from different regions and schools to engage with one another and embrace their commonalities —much like the military, which Fryday, who served as a naval officer, understands.

In its first year, CollegeCorps is on 46 campuses across the Golden State, from big UCs and CSUs to community colleges and private schools. The inaugural class is 68 percent Pell eligible, 64 percent first-generation college students, and more than 80 percent students of color.

Fryday says his office hopes that providing a debt-free pathway for students will boost graduation rates. The corps leaders and the universities know that financial troubles often lead to a surge in dropout rates between a student’s first and second years.

Governor Gavin Newsom calls CollegeCorps the achievement that makes him “more proud … than anything else.” It also helps him politically. The college-for-service-work approach threads the political needle for Democrats divided over President Joe Biden’s plan to cancel up to $20,000 in student loan debt.

CollegeCorps also embodies the vision that Paul Glastris, the Washington Monthly’s editor in chief, laid out in “Free College If You Serve,” which argued for a more generous AmeriCorps to give Pell-eligible members enough to cover a year’s tuition and fees, plus room and board. California is offering students precisely that.

Fryday likens CollegeCorps to military service—an experience that, at its best, helps society and volunteers alike.

“I refer to this program as the California GI Bill,” Fryday says. “The GI Bill provided opportunities for generations of Americans to get an education and have pathways to the middle class because they served their country. That’s what we’re doing.”

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Gabby Birenbaum is digital editor at the Washington Monthly.