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January 24, 2024

College students make good money from public service in new state program

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle

Charlie Gardner, a chemistry major at San Francisco State, has always worked his way through school, with some jobs more successful than others.

There was the time a golf ball came sailing through the air and slammed into his back when he was a groundskeeper. The golfer felt so sorry that he hired Gardner to wait tables at his restaurant. There was also the clothing store gig where Gardner had to watch for merchandise theft “like a glorified scarecrow.”

Then, last year, he noticed a flyer at school: “Build skills. Help Others. Earn money.”

That was the recruitment hook for College Corps, the state’s newest paid service program. And Gardner was hooked.

Brimming with $73.1 million from California’s general fund, College Corps pays thousands of full-time students with public money to help the public: tutoring, mentoring, running after-school programs, doing climate work and fighting hunger.

Yet the service part of the deal wasn’t the allure for Gardner. Not at first.

“Ten thousand dollars a year! It was really the money that caught my eye,” he said.

Through College Corps, Gardner began tutoring at S.F. Back on Track, an after-school academic program at Third Baptist Church in San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood. With flexible hours that Gardner could shape around his busy chemistry schedule, helping children challenged his brain in ways that plucking golf balls out of gopher holes never did.

One day, Gardner and a colleague noticed a child who refused to do her homework.

“We were like, ‘What’s wrong?’ ” Gardner recalled. “She said, ‘I had the worst day ever,’ ” and told them about mean kids who wouldn’t let her play with them and poured water on her. She thought that telling a teacher would make things worse. So they talked about strategies for coping with bullies, and how a teacher might actually help. The next week, the girl returned in a better mood. She said she had stood up for herself.

“I felt great,” Gardner said. “It felt like I was making a difference.”

He applied again to College Corps this year and now works with visitors at the city’s nonprofit Botanical Gardens and horticultural library. And he occasionally returns to S.F. Back on Track to visit.

“College Corps is a great way to earn a living,” said Josh Fryday, the state’s chief service officer who oversees California Volunteers, the umbrella agency for the state’s four programs that pay people for public service: AmeriCorps California, the Youth Jobs Corps, Climate Action Corps and College Corps, now in its second year.

College Corps — the only one of the programs specifically for college students — is the first program of its kind in the country, Fryday said. With students logging more than 1 million service hours so far, he said, other states are sniffing around and may do something similar.

Students who complete 450 hours at a participating nonprofit organization are paid $10,000, with some of the money — about $1,800 per student this year — coming from an AmeriCorps award, which must be used for educational purposes or to repay a student loan.

The rest comes from the state’s general fund. California set aside more than $70 million last year to run College Corps through 2026, with a goal of employing at least 10,000 California resident students — including those who are undocumented — through community colleges, California State University campuses and the University of California. Four private schools also participate, including three in Southern California and University of the Pacific in Stockton.

More than 3,000 students on 46 campuses are in this year’s program, including 119 students at UC Berkeley and 184 across San Francisco State, Cal State East Bay and San Jose State universities.

One of them is Ailin Torres, a sophomore studying biology at San Francisco State who landed a College Corps job with the nonprofit Reading Partners.

Gael Jimenez Bauer, 6, studies with his reading tutor, Ailin Torres, at Jean Parker Elementary School in San Francisco on Nov. 29. Torres is working her way through San Francisco State as a tutor with the new College Corps program.

Gael Jimenez Bauer, 6, studies with his reading tutor, Ailin Torres, at Jean Parker Elementary School in San Francisco on Nov. 29. Torres is working her way through San Francisco State as a tutor with the new College Corps program. Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

The other day, a first-grade boy who might rather have been out on the playground instead found himself herded into the Jean Parker Elementary School library for a lesson with Torres, his reading tutor.

At a table by the window, they launched quickly into the story of “Pete the Cat and the New Guy,” about a group of animal friends trying to find out what each of them was good at.

Torres did most of the actual reading. But Gael Jimenez Bauer, 6, a slender boy with shiny brown hair, managed to stay planted in his chair and prove to Torres that he knew that the word “girl” started with a “g,” and that other “g” words were “goat” and “gorilla.”

At his first lesson earlier this fall, “I could tell he did not want to be there. He was very fidgety,” said Torres, recalling that Gael kept pushing away the book and running off.

“I didn’t really know what to do,” said Torres, who plans to be a dentist. So she checked with Nicole Sutton, a Reading Partner expert, who suggested that sitting together on the floor might help.

At his first lesson earlier this fall, Torres says, Gael was “very fidgety” and kept running away. So the next week, on the advice of another teacher, Torres made a nest of pillows on the colorful rug, and she and Gael sat and read together.

At his first lesson earlier this fall, Torres says, Gael was “very fidgety” and kept running away. So the next week, on the advice of another teacher, Torres made a nest of pillows on the colorful rug, and she and Gael sat and read together. Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

The next week, Torres made a nest of pillows on the colorful rug — and they sat and read together. She chose “No, David!” about a boy who runs around, makes a mess and plays with his food. They joked about how alike the boys were, and soon “we were bonding and laughing and being silly.”

But the real breakthrough? Tic-tac-toe.

The other day — back at the reading table — it was Gael’s anticipation of the contests with Torres that sustained him as he puzzled out the words “bed,” “cake,” “pizza,” and “stomachache.” Torres had promised him a tic-tac-toe match for every three pages they read together, and after that, she said, “It was game on!”

Born in El Salvador, Torres fled that country’s violence with her parents and brother before landing in an American school at age 11.

“I was in their shoes,” she said of her reading students. So teaching them “is very healing to my soul. It’s not like a job to me.”

College Corps is the first program of its kind in the country. With California students having logged more than 1 million service hours so far, other states are sniffing around and may do something similar.

College Corps is the first program of its kind in the country. With California students having logged more than 1 million service hours so far, other states are sniffing around and may do something similar. Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

College Corps jobs are also a win for the employers, said Jamie Chan, director of programs and partnerships at the Gardens of Golden Gate Park, which includes San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers and the Botanical Gardens.

College Corps funds nine students, including Charlie Gardner, who provide public education throughout the gardens. This frees staff to focus on an initiative called “Reimagining San Francisco,” which aims to increase “nature-filled spaces” from 5% of the city’s land to 30%, Chan said.

“Our staff is not able to meet those ambitious goals without help like this,” she said of College Corps. “It provides much needed subsidized work” that she said the nonprofit couldn’t otherwise afford.

Half of the gardens’ College Corps interns are students of color.

That’s significant, Chan said, because the country has so few people of color running public gardens.

“Even if they don’t end up in public gardens professionally,” she said, “they will spread the word.”

Reach Nanette Asimov: nasimov@sfchronicle.com; Twitter: @NanetteAsimov

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