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Mills fights proposed Cal Grant cut

Governor Jerry Brown proposed a 44 percent cut to the maximum Cal Grant award private school students can receive for the 2012-2013 fiscal year. If approved, the cut would affect Mills College students, a third of whom are Cal Grant recipients.

Sophomores Christina Williams and Alhelí Cuenca rally on the steps of the state capitol building for continued Cal Grant funding for private school students. (Courtesy of Casey Near.)

The cut is one of many proposed in the Governor’s 2012-2013 Budget, which is attempting to close California’s $9.2 billion deficit. The budget proposal also emphasized a commitment to protecting education from “the worst of the cuts.”

Reducing the maximum award from $9,708 to $5,472 for the estimated 30,000 Cal Grant students at independent, non-profit institutions like Mills College seems like a pretty bad cut to many, said admissions counselor Casey Near.

“A cut to the Cal Grant, particularly at Mills, is a cut to diversity,” Near said.

According to the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities (AICCU), 60 percent of all private school Cal Grant students identify as people of color, and the average family income ($40,896) of a private school Cal Grant student is less than the average family incomes of Cal Grant students at UC ($41,442) and CSU ($59,568).

In Mills’ own undergraduate population, 42 percent identify as people of color, 16 percent are resumers (23 years old or older) and over 30 percent are first generation.

A Cal Grant cut is also a cut to women role models, Near said.

“You cut a Cal Grant at Mills,” Near said, “and a lot of women would have to drop out. That’s one less woman who can serve as a role model to other women and an advocate in her own community because we find so many Mills graduates serve in the public sector.”

Mills fights back

A range of Mills community members — from the students to the Board of Trustees — have already begun fighting the proposed cut.

President Alecia DeCoudreaux urged all Cal Grant students in a Feb 22 email to share their personal stories with state lawmakers.

“Let them know the importance of the Cal Grant in enabling you to achieve your educational goals and the impact that this drastic cut would have on your educational and/or career plans,” DeCoudreaux wrote. “They must hear from students whose ability to continue their studies or whose ability to graduate will be affected by these cuts. They must know that the State’s investment in higher education and our workforce is vital to the economic recovery of California.”

Brown’s Budget will be revised in May and enacted this summer, so it is not yet known if the Cal Grant cut will go through.

If the reduction happens, though, DeCoudreaux wrote, “Mills College will make up the difference and assure that (students) receive the full $9,708 aid award as (they) have in the past.”

The President’s Cabinet made this recommendation to the Board of Trustees, who approved it, according to DeCoudreaux.

Given the College’s $3.5 million budget deficit, her announcement regarding the Cal Grant cuts was met with surprise.

“I’m not actually entirely sure where that money would come from,” Near said, “but that is a wonderful call to action by President DeCoudreaux!”

Student government action

Maja Sidzinska, Academic Chair of the Associated Students of Mills College (ASMC), did not know about the College’s commitment to making sure students received the $9,708 maximum award — whether the state pays for it or the College does.

“That’s actually news to me,” Sidzinska said. “If the College is pulling in money to cover gaps in financial aid, that means other student services probably won’t be funded as well. The money has to come from somewhere. Hopefully the Governor can be persuaded to not make up the state deficit at the expense of students.”

Brown’s proposal was of special concern to Sidzinska. Days after (but independent of) DeCoudreaux’s email, Sidzinska presented to the ASMC full board a resolution to oppose the Cal Grant cut, which was passed without opposition. Sidzinska said she plans to mail ASMC’s resolution the Governor’s office.

For the last few weeks, Sidzinska has been raising awareness on student news about the proposed cut and posting a link to the “Maintain the Maximum Cal Grant Award of $9,708” petition, urging all students, whether they receive Cal Grant or not, to sign it.

“When we walk around on campus,” Sidzinska said, “these people who get the Cal Grant are our friends. To me, it’s standing up for your community. Even if you don’t care about the money, then do it on behalf of your friends who get Cal Grants and would be hardpressed to attend college without them. And signing the petition is just really fast and easy.”

As of March 9, the petition — which needs 10,000 signatures — had 8,393.

Mills women at the Capitol

Last week Near accompanied sophomores Alhelí Cuenca, who is The Campanil’s Assistant Health & Sports Editor, and Christina Williams, who represented Mills as they shared their personal stories with state lawmakers at California’s capital and advocated for continued Cal Grant funding for independent non-profit schools.

The full day of lobbying was organized by the AICCU, of which Mills is a member.

“All day we were trying to drive home the point: ‘We need this (Cal Grant) more than you think we do,’” Williams said.

Williams — a biology major and sociology minor and whose goal is to be a pediatrician — has three jobs: campus tour guide, Children’s School office assistant and M Center Student Records assistant. She is also in the Black Women’s Collective, Workers of Faith and Dance Club, and she plans to run for ASMC.

Cuenca, William’s fellow Mills representative at the state capitol, knows she wants to be a journalism minor, but is still choosing between a sociology or PLEA major. She works as a campus tour guide and for the Telephone Outreach Program. She’s also part of the Dance Club. Cuenca doesn’t yet know what career to pursue, but she does know she wants to be a voice for those who don’t have one.

“It’s not that you’re taking money away from students,” Williams said, “you’re taking money away from our futures, our hopes, our dreams. Also California’s future. If you keep investing in private institutions, we as students will pay the state back in our occupations, in our taxpaying dollars, in our contributions to the community.”

While in Sacramento, Cuenca and Williams focused on clearing up the misconception that private school students don’t need
financial aid.

“What (lawmakers) don’t realize,” Near said, “is that people go to private schools because they get better financial aid packages than public school.”

Last semester, 97 percent of all undergraduates received financial aid, according to the Mills College website. 95 percent received some of their aid directly from Mills, and the average award was $35,220.

“Mills really prides itself on that,” Near said. “We’re able to get a much more diverse student body because we’re able to get a lot of students who are first generation or are paying for themselves, who otherwise would have fallen through the cracks elsewhere.”

About 100 diverse private school Cal Grant students, education staff and supportive lawmakers rallied on the capital steps last week — Cuenca, Williams and Near among them — and students took turns at the mic, sharing moving personal stories.

Williams shared her story, too.

“The reason why I was there,” Williams said, “fighting to save the Cal Grant, was because I didn’t want my mom’s sacrifices to go in vain.” Williams voice cracked on the phone as she retold her story. “Oh my God, I’m getting emotional. My mom has definitely, um … ” Williams sniffed. “I’m sorry. Whoo.” She paused a moment before continuing. “My mom has definitely done a lot and taking out a lot of loans for me to be at Mills College.”

Williams has two other siblings, one in college and the other a junior in high school. Williams’ mother is recently divorced and now a
single mother.

“I don’t want my mom to feel like she has to choose between her children,” Williams said. “Or choose which child gets the best education and who doesn’t. Fighting for the Cal Grant, to me, means fighting for my brother and sister to have opportunities here in California.”

Williams’ mother has only ever wanted her children to achieve higher education.

“If the Cal Grant were to be cut,” Williams said, “I feel like my mom’s sacrifices would mean nothing because I probably wouldn’t be able to continue at Mills. My brother wouldn’t be able to continue at Sac State, and my sister — she’s not even in her senior year of high school. College would not be an option for my sister if that Cal Grant is cut.”

Cuenca heard a lot of heartfelt testimonies from fellow private school Cal Grant students and even legislators who put themselves through college once upon a time. But when Cuenca heard Williams tell her story to a legislative staffer, she had to hold back her own tears.

“The part where Christina said, ‘I don’t want my mom’s hard work to be in vain’ — that hit home,” Cuenca said.

The youngest of six children, Cuenca was told by her parents that they might not be able to send her to Mills.

“We don’t know where to take money from,” Cuenca remembered them saying. “We don’t have anymore money.”

It was a shock for Cuenca, but her parents, aided by financial aid like the Cal Grant, were able to make it happen.

“It boggles my mind to know that my dad came from Mexico with a couple dollars, built this family up and has been able to put three daughters through private school — two at Mills. Hearing Christina’s, ‘I don’t want my mom’s sacrifice to be in vain,’ it’s just, oh my goodness. We have so many discussions about our parents’ sacrifices and our hopes for our future. To hear her articulate it in that way in that setting, it was powerful.” Cuenca said, “That one’s going to stay with me.”