AmeriCorps program helps students engage with the community, develop professional skills and earn money for college.
By Michele Willer-Allred
A first-in-the-nation pilot AmeriCorps Fellow cohort, aimed at helping students pay for college through public service, is underway this spring semester at Cal Lutheran and already producing a positive reaction among participants.
“The skills I have learned through the AmeriCorps program are just amazing,” said 20-year-old Miguel Angel Gomez, a junior biology student serving at Safe Passage, a program in Thousand Oaks committed to eliminating gang-related crime by stopping gang recruitment among at-risk youth.
Likewise, the students’ service is producing promising results in underserved communities.
For instance, community organizers with the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP) have credited students in the program for helping Indigenous Mexican youth in their organization become more engaged in the community.
Organizers say those are exactly the results they were hoping for when deciding to offer the pilot program, which also allows the university to become more engaged in the community.
Cal Lutheran is one of eight universities partnering with the state of California on the Civic Action Fellowships coordinated by California Volunteers, which administers the AmeriCorps portfolio.
An inaugural cohort of 20 students is serving low-income and immigrant populations throughout Ventura County.
Upon completion of their fellowships, the students can receive up to $7,900 from the federal and state governments.
Last fall, the students participated in professional development training, which included learning about serving vulnerable populations, and connected with the leaders at the organizations where they would serve.
In addition to Safe Passage and MICOP, the organizations include Cal Lutheran’s Rising Scholars Academy partnership with Moorpark College; Cal Lutheran’s TRIO Pre-University Programs; and Oxnard College’s OMEGA Initiative for men of color, First Year Experience (FYE) Center and DREAM Center.
The students started their service hours in mid-January, and this spring are dedicating 25 hours a week for 22 weeks to activities, such as tutoring both children and adult language learners and developing and running extracurricular programs.
Concurrently, they are taking courses focused on social justice theories, educational equity and community engagement. In the summer, they will complete data collection and assessment reports.
“It’s a big program,” said project director Cynthia Duarte. “Given that it’s the first year, it’s really challenging. The students are at their sites right now, and we’re seeing them helping other students, so it’s a really exciting time.”
Duarte, an assistant professor of sociology and director of Cal Lutheran’s Sarah W. Heath Center for Equality and Justice, said each participating student has a passion for service and education. They also have unique strengths and innovative ideas on how to better connect with more people in the community.
Gomez is involved with several tasks at Safe Passage, including distributing food, clothing and school supplies to individuals and families in need, and tutoring at-risk youths, who may not otherwise get the support that they need. He is utilizing his science knowledge to create a mini-science fair for young students and working on ways to better bridge the gap between the police and certain parts of the community that might have animosity toward law enforcement.
“I’ve also become more socially aware, and I’ve become more cognizant of the way my actions and behaviors can affect others,” said Gomez.
Denise Quezada, a 22-year-old exercise science major, is serving with Oxnard College’s First Year Experience, which provides resources and informational and recreational workshops to first-year college students.
Aware that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected daily activities such as exercise, Quezada helped create a workshop for the students called Wellness Wednesdays. It is designed to promote physical and mental wellness in an interactive and accessible manner, including through short TikTok videos.
“The FYE program was in need of a resource for students to exercise this fundamental need that is often overlooked,” Quezada said. “I really enjoy working on this project so far because this is a topic I am passionate about. Physical wellness is something I believe to be central to many aspects of our life.”
“I don’t think any of them realized their TikTok skills were going to be really valuable. It’s really neat to see something they didn’t know was a skill suddenly become a skill,” said Duarte, adding that the students are also putting the knowledge they have learned in the classroom to great use.
The students also are gaining valuable professional skills and learning how to organize, manage and present themselves in a work setting, Duarte said.
“I really like that this program feels more like community service, which I really enjoy participating in, as opposed to just work and no fun. It feels more like giving back,” said Angelina Leanos, a 19-year-old sophomore English major, who is also serving at Oxnard College.
“I would tell students if they’re passionate about community service and helping students on their path toward higher education, that this is definitely a program to do that type of work,” Leanos said.
Katia Ayala, a 22-year-old senior political science and Spanish major, is focusing on the Tequio Youth Group and helping advocate for the health and well-being of Indigenous Mexican youth in Ventura County as part of MICOP. Her supervisor is Xochitl Lopez, also a senior at Cal Lutheran, who serves as a youth organizer with MICOP.
“For so long our Indigenous youth have kind of been left out and not always welcome. So, that’s why our organization and youth group in general is super important for our community,” Lopez said. “I see our youth show up religiously now, and they’re super excited to interact with their classmates and fellow youth.”
“I see (Ayala’s) work being very important to our community, showing us that we belong in these spaces where we weren’t always welcome,” she said.
Ayala said the service she is involved with is expanding her horizons.
“The program really prepares you for the real world because it exposes you to so many problems within your own community that really make you think, and really make you be proactive instead of living in your own bubble,” Ayala said.
Another Cal Lutheran student, Amaris Menjivar, a 21-year-old senior communication major, is assisting MICOP community organizer Juvenal Solano with farmworker justice initiatives.
Menjivar is helping to design informational materials, including those that inform farmworkers about their rights, as well as calling farmworkers to encourage them to attend Zoom meetings or training.
“It is an asset (having Menjivar here) because she knows a lot about marketing and that is a plus for us since most of our organizers themselves were farmworkers with limited technology abilities,” Solano said.
Duarte said Cal Lutheran received the initial pilot funding to test out the program, and now the university is applying for a two-year grant to continue it.
If the application is successful, Cal Lutheran will start accepting applications for the 2021-22 AmeriCorps Fellow cohort program in late spring or early summer.
What kind of student is Cal Lutheran seeking for the program?
“We want students who are strong in character, have a global mindset, and are committed to social justice,” Duarte said.
“These students are living the mission of Cal Lutheran in our community, as well as giving themselves training so even when they leave college, they’ll be able to continue that mission. So, they really represent us at our best when it comes to Cal Lutheran,” Duarte said.
For more information, visit www.CalLutheran.edu/centers/cej/americorps.
Michele Willer-Allred is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Ventura County Star, Malibu Surfside News and Central Coast Farm & Ranch magazine. She lives in Moorpark, California.