Some UC Berkeley College Corps Fellows and staff at the swearing-in ceremony on Oct. 7, 2022. Credit: California Volunteers, Office of the Governor

At a ceremony earlier this month, 98 UC Berkeley students were sworn in as the first class volunteers as part of CollegeCorps, a new state program that pays low- and middle-income college students $10,000 to do 450 hours of community service.

The volunteers will devote eight to ten hours a week to a local organization they are paired with in the areas of K-12 education, climate change, food insecurity and youth and behavioral health. In exchange, students will receive a $7,000 stipend and a $3,000 educational award to go toward tuition.

Billed as an innovative way to cut down on student debt while providing a volunteer workforce and fostering civic engagement, the program pilots an alternative model to President Biden’s federal debt relief. At the Texas Tribune Festival in September, Newsom said he is “probably more proud of [College Corps] than anything I’ve been involved in.”

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond spoke at the swearing-in ceremony, broadcast live at UC Berkeley’s Haviland Hall, describing how he had to work the night-shift at minimum-wage jobs throughout college and take time off from school when money ran short, delaying his graduation. 

“That’s why I love the college for all corps. It’s an opportunity for you to earn while you serve and while you learn,” Thurmond said. “But we want you to complete your education and go on and do all the great things you’re going to do while you’re also serving in our communities.”

In its first year, 3,200 students at 46 California campuses will participate in the College Corps program.

Most CollegeCorps volunteers are first-generation college students, the majority receive Pell grants, and 18 are California Dreamers. Because the program doesn’t involve federal dollars, it can include undocumented students, providing debt relief to a group often left out of financial aid opportunities

Partner organizations include Oakland’s Rising Sun Center for Opportunity, which works in clean energy and water, and the Harriet Tubman Early Childhood Center in West Oakland.

Mukt Kaur Sandhu, a 20-year-old third-year student at Cal, will spend their fellowship volunteering in the sustainability office at Berkeley Unified, excited to put environmental theory into action.

“What I found lacking with my environmental classes was just the practice. We talked about sustainability, waste, landfill emissions, and I felt ready to go out and do something in the world,” they said.

Brooke Cartolano is a 32-year-old, first-generation college student planning to apply to law school next year, hoping to work in education law or as a guardian ad litem. Having had her daughter when she was still a teenager, Cartolano still has to pinch herself that she is graduating from UC Berkeley. She has long worked in restaurants to make ends meet, but College Corps frees her to work with children.

“I just needed a little bit of extra money. And now I can do it by serving my community, instead of serving yuppies at beer gardens,” Cartolano said.

The program pays in the ballpark of minimum wage, meaning most students are still planning to work part-time to make ends meet. 

“I’m going to also have to take on a part-time job, as well as being a full-time student and doing the service, but it’s better than nothing,” Kaur Sandhu said. “I would love if in the future, the state is able to allocate even more money to the program. I think that’d be amazing.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Mukt Kaur Sandhu’s name.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...