Working to Inspire: California Volunteers and College Corps

Chief Service Officer Josh Fryday touts the state’s AmeriCorps agencies.

PUBLISHED APR 10, 2023 2:40 P.M.
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College Corps fellows from University of the Pacific at the launch and swearing-in celebration in Sacramento on Oct. 7, 2022.

College Corps fellows from University of the Pacific at the launch and swearing-in celebration in Sacramento on Oct. 7, 2022.   Photo Courtesy California Volunteers   Flickr

Yessenia Sanchez knew something was different when, for the first time, one of her students went off on a long tangent about her day.

Sanchez is a second-year student at UCLA and one of 3,200 fellows participating in the first year of College Corps, a program of California Volunteers, the state’s division of AmericCorps. As part of her work, Sanchez tutors students in the Los Angeles Unified School District who are primarily from Spanish-speaking households.

Sanchez knows this world well. An undocumented immigrant who was brought to the United States at two months old, she grew up in a small farming community near Fresno. And so it struck her when the student she was tutoring began to expound.

“In that moment, she was a completely different child to me than when I had first met her,” Sanchez says. “And, for me, I just felt this happiness that she also finally told me she believed in herself.”

It’s just part of the work done by California Volunteers, which works out of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office and quietly makes a major difference in the state.

Expanding Paid Service Opportunities

Josh Fryday, a US Navy veteran who leads California Volunteers as the state’s Chief Service Officer, says it’s crucial that College Corps pays its volunteers.

The program does not require unpaid work—unlike academic internships, which too often have shut out anyone who couldn’t afford to work for free.

Instead, students in the College Corps receive a $7,000 stipend for the year, which helps cover expenses associated with traveling to jobsites. Students can also earn an additional $3,000 in educational incentives if they make it to the end of the year in the fellowship program.

Expanding the number of paid service opportunities is “incredibly important,” Fryday says.

“I remind people all the time that I volunteered to be in the military and I got paid, and it was my job,” Fryday says. “We have a lot of needs in California and we need people to step up and serve. And we should be paying them. And we should be providing other economic incentives.”

That could help draw in people like Sanchez, who grew up in Orosi, where the per capita income was just $16,776 and the poverty rate twice the state average. Sanchez grew up working in agricultural fields with her parents, who pushed her to get educated.

“I wanted to be living proof that immigrants are not bad people, we are not a burden on society, we are not a burden on this country,” says Sanchez, who is a Dream Act student under California Assembly Bill 540, which allows students to access in-state tuition regardless of immigration status. “If anything, I want to make this country greater than it is.”

So Sanchez assists with virtual tutoring, helping students in subjects including math, English, and reading, as well as offering homework assistance.

College Corps Volunteers Serve Statewide

In Davis, 19-year-old Sacramento City College student Jairi Diaz Marin has been helping out at the Explorit Science Center. Part of her work includes scheduling social media posts and making flyers for the center, which is open Friday through Sunday and caters to children.

Diaz Marin says she hesitated initially to find work, applying to College Corps after her parents saw a news story related to the program. She doesn’t seem to have regrets.

“I would encourage people to join,” Diaz Marin says. “I think it’s a really nice program because it gives you that flexibility of being a college student and working toward experiencing other fields, rather than just internships in your field.”

More Than College Students

California Volunteers offers a range of opportunities beyond College Corps, and has ramped up work around climate action.

In Oakland, Teron McGrew is doing a fellowship for the California Climate Action Corps through the Higher Ground Neighborhood Development Corporation. McGrew is not just some community member who happened into a fellowship, having trained with Al Gore, who followed his two-term U.S. vice presidency with a long-term foray into environmental work.

McGrew says Gore provides live training.

“What he does is that he interviews the top experts in climate change and climate justice around the world and he brings them to the stage,” McGrew says.

There are other signs of a climate action focus in California Volunteers. Katie Vavao, a spokesperson for the agency, worked on the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign of billionaire Tom Steyer, who made the environment his chief issue.

Previously, Steyer had founded an organization focused on climate change that was initially called NextGen Climate. Fryday also worked for Steyer, having run his organization for a time. He’s been in his current role at California Volunteers for more than three years.

Fryday has worked at his agency amid a push by Gov. Newsom to expand service opportunities, cooperating with the legislature to create the College Corps program, which is funded at current levels through 2026.

Newsom and the legislature have also created the Climate Corps and Youth Jobs Corps programs, expanding the work of AmeriCorps within the state.

Taken collectively, the state provides more service opportunities within California than the Peace Corps, according to Fryday. Still, it’s not just about numbers.

“I think we add a lot of value on a lot of different fronts,” Fryday says. “But I think what inspires me the most is that through our work, people really feel empowered…and they also feel like they’re really connected.”

It’s people like Sanchez, who sometimes hears the students she helps interact with their parents. Having grown up acting as her mother’s interpreter in everyday situations, Sanchez feels as if she’s looking in a mirror, and that gratifies her.

“When these kids are connecting to me and they speak my language and they look like me,” Sanchez says, “I’m realizing that I’m helping the past version of me that didn’t get the help like they are getting.”

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