In this time of record-high unemployment, especially for recent college graduates, and with parents worried over the months of instruction time that their children have lost due to COVID-19, I believe that there is a solution that will help address both problems.
After I graduated from college, I chose to serve as an AmeriCorps member with City Year. That intensive experience proved to be the best professional development I could have hoped for and it paved the way for my career in Bakersfield, where I train new staff for Kern County.
City Year is a program that places diverse teams of AmeriCorps members from around the country in public schools, providing students additional support and teachers an extra hand in classrooms that are often overcrowded and systemically under-resourced. I was placed at a high school in Los Angeles where I worked with ninth graders, tutoring them after class and brainstorming innovative ways to support them, their families and their teachers.
Now, Congress has the chance to expand this tried and true program, to help young people who have been hit the hardest by unemployment and give students struggling to catch up the support they need. The Cultivating Opportunity and Response to the Pandemic through Service Act (CORPS Act) seeks to scale up existing national service programs through AmeriCorps, something many communities could really benefit from. Introduced this summer, the CORPS Act has the support of several bipartisan lawmakers. Support for this important piece of legislation from California members of congress, especially locally, could make a difference for our entire country.
Like many recent college grads, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Fortunately, my year of service with City Year helped me discover my passion for cultivating resources and researching ways to help others succeed. Being part of students’ growth and successes brought me a sense of fulfillment, and the support I received from City Year was also instrumental in developing my own leadership skills. On the weekends and in the evenings, AmeriCorps members attended networking events, fine tuned our resumes and learned how to interview for jobs, all invaluable aspects of our career development.
My job in Bakersfield puts me front and center with new county workers and it’s the soft skills I honed during my service that I draw on daily, even five years after completing the program. I develop curriculums to train and set my colleagues up for success, but I know I might not have found this path if it weren’t for City Year.
With three sites in California and 29 sites across the country, the program offers a lifeline to young residents who are eager to be part of a national service program and who would benefit from the professional development it offers. With an unemployment rate of 18.3 percent in May, Kern County residents have been hard hit by the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. Investing in this proven strategy would be immensely beneficial to those just entering the workforce.
Additionally, the CORPS Act does something that I feel very strongly about: it would increase AmeriCorps members’ living allowance and double the education award they receive at the end of their year of service, currently a $6,195 grant that can be used toward pursuing further education or paying off existing student loans.
During my year with City Year, we often worked at least 10 hours a day to do everything we could to help our students. With many of us coming from working-class families, the stipend was barely enough to keep up with basic living costs, especially in Southern California. I was lucky enough to be able to live with my family, but many of my peers had to take on second jobs on the weekends to make ends meet, leaving them exhausted.
An increased stipend will make it much easier for people to do a year of service and get the most out of the program with less financial stress. People shouldn't have to make the choice between making a living wage or serving their community.
By making the program more accessible to people and simultaneously increasing the number of AmeriCorps members serving our country, we can not only invest in helping students succeed at a time when students are experiencing tremendous learning loss, we can also invest in the success of AmeriCorps members who will become the next generation of working professionals.
Cindy Humphrey Santillan, of Bakersfield, is a former City Year AmeriCorps member.