Student leaders pave the way for change

SPARC leader Shannon Riley and SPARC leader Lisa Quilan with her children

As Blue Shield of California Foundation works to strengthen economic security and mobility for Californians, we are constantly inspired by community leaders who are organizing, educating, and fighting for change. One new group of advocates continuing to gain momentum and traction is student parents.

Student parents in California’s community colleges are struggling to complete their degrees. Larger than an education issue, this is also a women’s equity issue — disproportionately affecting women of color — and one of economic security. Research from UC Davis’ Wheelhouse suggests that family responsibilities contribute to low college persistence and completion, especially for historically underrepresented minority students. A recent report estimated that only 37% of parenting students complete a degree or certificate within six years.

In 2020, the Foundation invested in Project SPARC (Student Parents Are Reimagining CalWORKs), which enlisted student leaders from community colleges to conduct research and engage in a human-centered design process. By creating solutions to the many issues that student parents encounter as they navigate the CalWORKs and community college systems, the project aims to reduce poverty among families of parenting college students and increase college transfers and degrees. Ultimately, it has the potential to increase economic justice for families and to reduce the wage gap for women in California.

Shannon Riley and Lisa Quilan are two Project SPARC leaders who recently shared their experiences with the Foundation. Riley is a single mother of two living in Redding. She has been rebuilding a life for herself and her children after losing her home to a fire a few years ago. She completed an associate's degree at Shasta College and will be moving on to complete her bachelor’s at Oregon State University. Quilan is a single mother of three living in Riverside. She too is creating a new life for herself and her children, after leaving an unhealthy relationship. She is entering her final year at Norco College to complete her associate's degree. Riley and Quilan both receive CalWORKs benefits, are working, full-time parents, and see higher education as a way to improve their families' economic security. They have both found that the systems in place to help them don’t always work for them. Their involvement in Project SPARC and in a recent student parent summit has opened their eyes to the possibilities for change and to the value of their voices and experiences in creating this change.

Shannon Riley

Q: What inspired you to join Project SPARC?

A: The idea of reimagining CalWORKs really is what sparked my passion. I think that some of the CalWORKs policies are interesting, and I have been on the wrong side of some. The one thing that drives me more than anything is I feel like the system, as it is now, perpetuates the cycle of poverty and I would really like to see a clearer path out of poverty for recipients of CalWORKs.

Q: What’s something that has surprised you in this work?

A: I figured that my struggles with transportation and child care were unique. But I’m finding through interviews that that is not the case at all. The three biggest problems for parenting students seem to be transportation, housing, and child care. Not necessarily in that order, but that’s a common denominator across the board. It makes me feel more normal in my struggles, not better about it, but at least that I’m normal.

Q: Do you think the work you are doing is making a difference? 

A: I think we have potential to make a huge difference, particularly with the community colleges because they’ve been so receptive to our work and what we are doing. For example, one idea that emerged from [this work] is that each community college across the state makes a Canvas [educational platform] page for their CalWORKs, so it would be listed as a class and then you can go in there and see what services they have and how to contact people. My school did that right away. It was just so exciting to me, like, "Wow, this is happening, this is making a difference."

Q: What do you want people to know about this program?

A: I do wish that other colleges would hire SPARC students and realize that we can make big differences and it’s not just a waste of your work-study funding. It’s something that’s really going to change your SPARC leader’s life; it’s going to help them later on in life. And the work that we do, it’s fun and it’s important and we learn to work with others and it’s just a totally new experience.

Q: What do you think student parents need?

A: Support more than anything. At one point I thought I could go it alone, but it’s just too much for any one person to do. Having empathy for people who don’t have these support systems. It’s really helpful to have a little bit of empathy and understanding where people are coming from, especially with student parents or single parents. It’s hard. [People should] try not to be too hard on them.

Lisa Quilan

Q: What have you liked about your SPARC experience?

A: What I really like about SPARC is that our personal experience was really the only experience we needed. We’re welfare recipients, we’ve all gone through trauma, domestic violence, housing insecurity. Everybody has at least one or two things — if not more — to connect with or bond over.

Q: What have you learned through this work that has surprised you?

A: Being able to learn about the systems on an inside level, versus walking through the social services door as a recipient, and hearing the stories from other people of what they’ve been through. The system has really failed us. It has failed so many people over the years, so I think what we’re doing is really revolutionary. It’s an advocacy group, we’re advocating not only for ourselves, but for the people that are in the system now and for the future.

Q: What are you most proud of?

A: We’ve had people from different organizations coming in and wanting to know what we’re doing and asking us for our advice and for our expertise as student parents. I think that’s really important because that gives people a sense of confidence. That gives us a sense of value, because there’s such a stigma with welfare. I think Project SPARC is really helping to erase some of that.

Q: What systemic barriers need to be changed?

A: Talking about the welfare system, I think a lot of us go through the same things and I think it’s a bigger nut to crack that I feel like we haven’t even begun to uncover in SPARC. The counties all conduct their offices differently. Even though we have laws and rules and regulations that are supposed to be across the board, in each office and [with each] eligibility officer, there are things that are at their discretion. So, how do we make the system fair for everybody? I think that’s the biggest eye-opener. I hope to see more communication with the leaders working in these offices.

Q: What do you want people to know about the program and about yourself?

A: It’s really helped me be an advocate for myself. I think it’s important for people to build confidence and to build a community and to feel safe. It’s really important having people who can stand behind you. I have an army behind me. And that has pushed me and SPARC has really pushed me. My journey has been a really hard one, but I’m doing great things. I’m meeting great people, I’m networking and just putting myself out there. My goal is to help other people. I’m just surviving right now, just trying to get through school and get my kids to the point where they are happy and healthy and stable.

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