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The launch of the Civic Action Fellowship in California Monday

California Volunteers Twitter account

Eight universities in California are embarking on an experiment to help students pay for college through public service.

The Civic Action Fellowship, announced Monday, will award students up to $10,000 to put toward their college costs in exchange for one semester working with a local nonprofit or government office.

Students will tackle a range of regional and local community challenges, such as reducing homelessness. The challenges each institution will address will be selected by the governor of California, Gavin Newsom, and form part of a statewide initiative to encourage more citizens to give back to their communities.

Rather than making students work on weekends or over the summer, the public service commitment will take the place of classes for one semester. Staff members at each institution will work with local partners to ensure the student placements tie into the academic curriculum and are substantive.

The participating institutions are a mixture of public and private nonprofit universities. California Lutheran University, Dominican University of California and University of the Pacific are the independent institutions; California State University's campuses at Los Angeles and Stanislaus and San José State University and the University of California campuses at Berkeley and Merced are the public universities in the pilot.

California Volunteers, a California state agency, will lead coordination of the program and distribute $3.2 million to the eight institutions to cover administrative costs. An additional $677,000 in scholarship funds will be allocated to participating students following completion of their fellowship. The nearly $4 million in funding, a mixture of federal and state funds, will cover the pilot from March 2020 through June 30, 2021.

Representatives of institutions participating in the pilot, described as a “first-in-the-nation” program in a California Volunteers news release, said the program would help them to graduate students with real-world job experience and an engrained commitment to civic engagement. Approximately 250 students will participate in the program starting in fall 2020. The fellowship is supported by an AmeriCorps grant, and students will be required to sign up as AmeriCorps Fellows to participate.

“We hope this new partnership with universities will become a model for calling on young people to serve, while helping them pay for college,” said California chief service officer Josh Fryday in a statement.

The Civic Action Fellowship was inspired by a program at Dominican University called Reimagining Citizenship. In this scholarship program, students work with the government of the city of Novato over two sequential summers while earning credit toward Dominican’s minor in community action and social change.

Mary Marcy, Dominican's president, said Fryday -- then mayor of the city of Novato -- was instrumental in creating the Reimagining Citizenship program in 2018. The new Civic Action Fellowship will be modeled on Dominican’s program, but with some important changes. For example, students will no longer work over their summer vacation, as some need to work full-time during that period to make ends meet, said Marcy. Dominican will continue to offer its Reimagining Citizenship program in addition to the new Civic Action Fellowship, she said.

Each of the eight institutions participating in the fellowship already encourages students to give back to their community through public service, said Marcy. “I was really heartened by the number of campuses that said yes. Conceptually this makes a lot of sense. We have a natural cohort of institutions that already engage with their communities.”

Navigating the different governance structures in state government, community partners and public and private institutions of varying sizes makes the fellowship program “very complex” to organize, said Marcy. “But there’s a collegiality and interest shared by everyone involved to make it work,” she said.

Given the administrative challenges involved, it isn’t clear how much the fellowship can scale, acknowledged Marcy.

Dominican plans to start with 33 students this fall and see how things progress from there, she said. Both Marcy and Ana Bertha Gutiérrez, a senior director at Jobs for the Future, said Newsom would like to see the fellowship become truly statewide, with potentially thousands of students participating each year.

“It makes sense to connect these systems and create these pathways into state service,” said Gutiérrez. “California is seizing on upon the opportunity and the convening power of the current administration to try this out and set something up.”

While she fully supports the idea behind the fellowship, Gutiérrez said there are a “lot of institutional and administrative challenges that will come up. Higher education institutions aren’t designed to offer internships at scale. They aren’t used to partnering in this nuanced way. They’re going to have to adapt and change, and that is going to be where the real work is going to take place.” She added, “We know all these systems are connected and interdependent, but how do we get them to talk with each other?”

Participants hope the fellowship won’t just improve communication between universities and community partners, but also between participating institutions. Mojgan Behmand, associate vice president for academic affairs and dean of the Dominican Experience, said she anticipates that sharing results between institutions may be one of the more challenging aspects of the fellowship, but it will be essential to helping it scale.

“Aligning with each other, sharing best practices will be challenging but valuable. We want to connect students across institutions, share syllabi, use our planning grants to train each other and share what we are doing with our colleagues. It’s that alignment between different institutions that will be really valuable and make the initiative pervasive throughout the state. But it’s going to be hard to organize,” said Behmand.

At the institutional level, Behmand said Dominican is focused on creating meaningful work placements that benefit not only students, but also the institution’s community partners. “It has to be reciprocal,” she said.

Dominican has developed a two-semester academic sequence to prepare students for their fellowship. Fellows will take two courses in their first semester to learn how to identify community need and understand key theories in community engagement and social advocacy. In the second semester, fellows will complete 450 hours of on-site service for 10 units of credit. Dominican’s pilot will focus on three key areas: education, economic opportunity and healthy futures. Depending on where they are placed, students will provide services including health and nutrition education, financial literacy, and housing advocacy and support.

A spokeswoman for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that manages AmeriCorps, said the Civic Action Fellowship is an innovative use of AmeriCorps funding. “We don’t have anything that looks like this. The scale and scope are quite unique,” she said. Though AmeriCorps already works with higher education in many ways, there are opportunities for that bond to be strengthened, the spokeswoman said. “Connecting higher education and public service is a natural partnership. Programs like this have the potential to have a tremendous impact on students’ lives, their community and beyond.”

“The new Civic Action Fellowship is an encouraging step toward maximizing federal funding to help California students afford college and find meaningful employment upon graduation,” said Audrey Dow, senior vice president of the Campaign for College Opportunity. “Ensuring college affordability more broadly, however, requires a larger statewide strategy that ensures all high school students complete the FAFSA, take up federal work-study, when available, and of course, a redesign of our current Cal Grant program so that all low-income students can afford tuition and cost of living.”

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