Be the Change

The CSU prepares students to advocate for their communities through public service, volunteering and civic engagement.


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At the California State University, every campus offers students the chance to make a difference in their communities—​from local service opportunities to voting support. But the ultimate goal is to prepare them to continue working on behalf of their neighborhoods, their state and their world after they graduate.

Discover a few ways the CSU is empowering students to be the change they want to see.​

Getting Out the Vote


Oftentimes, college students are voting for the first time. As exciting as that can be, they aren't always aware of what is needed to cast a ballot. California State University, Sacramento's Community Engagement Center (CEC) is taking steps to change that.

This is “a great time to bring them into the process and show them it's not difficult; they can be engaged, and they can be informed," says Marisa Warnock, CEC volunteer and program specialist. “It's an opportunity for us as a campus to leverage our resources and come together to help students, especially because they are a group that is easily disenfranchised."

To facilitate student voting, Sacramento State became the first California university to host a vote center on campus in 2018, allowing students to cast their ballots for the March 2020 primaries and 2020 general election. Additionally, a mail-in ballot drop-off box has been placed in the student recreation center.

In summer 2019, the CEC—with campus partners, Sacramento County Voter Registration and Elections and students—formed the Voter Engagement Group aimed at informing the student body about the voting process. Most recently, it focused on the “Hornets Vote. Hornets Count." campaign to encourage students to register to vote ahead of the November 3, 2020​ election.

“We're just making them aware that there's no excuse not to vote," says Francine Redada, CEC senior partnership coordinator. “We have our vote center and other options to submit your ballot. We're making sure that they are educated well enough that there shouldn't be a barrier."

Sacramento State students cast their ballots in Modoc Hall during the March 3, 2020 primary elections.

Sacramento State students cast their ballots in Modoc Hall during the March 3, 2020 primary elections.

The campaign included being part of state and national voter campaigns like National Voter Registration Day in September, National Voter Education Week in October, the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge and the Ballot Bowl in which California universities competed to register the most students voters.

But the CEC also hosted campus events, including two voter registration drives and a Civic Engagement Resource Fair.

“We're looking for any ways—especially during COVID-19 when people are feeling isolated—that students can feel connected, [so they feel] like they can make a difference or be a part of the community," Warnock says.

And while the campaign is focused on students, they are also a major part of the effort. This spring, Griselda Camacho and Janneth Magana Gil (two student fellows from the California Campus Compact Community Engagement Student Fellowship) worked in the CEC to increase student voting and census participation. They also were semi-finalists in the Civic Life Project's Democracy 2020 Youth Film Challenge with their “A Threat to Our Democracy" video on voter suppression.

“It was a great experience because I got to learn a lot about voting, the census and voter suppression," Magana Gil says. “It's well known that a lot of youth are not likely to vote because they think their vote doesn't count. But I want them to know it is important to get our voice heard, and voting is a great way to do it. If you feel strongly about a topic, a law or something you want to change in your community, voice your opinion and vote for things you know will benefit you and your community."

In addition, the Residence Hall Association and ASI hosted a Hornets All In voting information event, and ASI volunteers served as 2020 Election Ambassadors, attending events and helping others get informed.

“Being an ambassador is sparking and leading a movement of change that begins with us," says Arturo Luna Ambriz, a second-year political science major and 2020 Election Ambassador. “This is my first time voting. Having the tools and skills necessary to engage my community in our movement has been revolutionary; I know we will be a fraction of the change and collectively continue to educate ourselves."

Harnessing The Data


In 2018, the California State University, Los Angeles College of Natural and Social Sciences (NSS) established its Big Data Project with the city of L.A., local nonprofits and community partners to introduce students to the power of big data and give them hands-on data analysis experience.

“The program moves beyond just memorization. It moves beyond an education that only focuses on knowledge building," says Dawn Dennis, Ph.D., history lecturer and grant manager. “… We want [students] to go and make a significant impact in their communities even before they graduate."

Students can enroll in a range of upper-level NSS courses redesigned to focus on big data—from business to chemistry to religious studies—in order to work on a project with a community organization and the Los Angeles GeoHub, an online geographic data platform.

“It is going to allow the students when they graduate to say, 'I have experience with big data,' and I think it's going to make them more marketable in this area," says religious studies lecturer Jorge Muñoz, Ph.D. He is applying to redesign his Religion, Race and Ethnicity course to use data for a class project on the intersection of religion, racism and prejudice in the L.A. area.

“Netflix uses big data; the healthcare industry uses big data. You can use big data in terms of government looking at poverty issues, environmental issues," he continues. “So, it runs the entire gamut, since our society is run now by big data."

After taking a redesigned spring class, students can then apply for a 16-week internship through the Social Equity Engagement geo-Data Scholars (SEEDS) Program, which places students in data positions at community organizations.

The June 2019 orientation for Cal State LA students completing summer internships through the Social Equity Engagement geo-Data

The June 2019 orientation for Cal State LA students completing summer internships through the Social Equity Engagement geo-Data Scholars Program.

“Because our world is changing every day, especially with technology, I think it's so important for us to learn [data work] and to see how it affects our communities and if we want to follow up with a career in this," says Paola Castro, a third-year SEEDS scholar majoring in business and minoring in economics. “Big data itself is an emerging technology that will be crucial in many careers."

Following completion of an economics big data course, Castro interned this summer for the California Elder Justice Coalition. There, she and fellow SEEDS Scholar Jorge Rodriguez created a story map called “Effects of COVID-19 on Older Adults in 2020" using data from the census and nursing and residential care facilities.

This year, NSS also launched the first five NSS 1001 Big Data courses, which incorporate data-focused instruction into the college's freshmen Introduction to Higher Education classes. Dr. Muñoz is currently leading the freshman NSS 1001 Big Data cohort in conducting and analyzing a survey to study the relationship among religious affiliation, political affiliation, economic status, ethnicity and race in the L.A. region. Next year, NSS hopes to add this data element to all its introductory classes.

“It is important, especially for our freshmen, to see this information, because most of them here in L.A. are 'minorities;' they're coming from low-income communities where they see disparity or where they see issues that need to be changed. And if they're not minorities, they still need to be informed on the world around them," says Castro, who serves as a mentor for freshman now taking the course. “And working on something that can help their communities is so important because it can spark an interest in some of them to do more along that path. Since big data is increasingly important to the new generation of careers, ensuring students can learn a bit of that knowledge will set them on the right path towards success."

Going into the Community


Developed by the California Volunteers office within the office of the governor, the Civic Action Fellowship Program helps college students engage with and serve their communities. Eight universities in the state—including Cal State LA, San José State University and California State University, Stanislaus (Stanislaus State President Ellen Junn, Ph.D., pictured above, at the announcement of the fellowship)—are participating in the program.

“The goal of this fellowship is not simply for our students to provide services to underserved beneficiaries and communities, but also to develop them as effective leaders in a democratic society," says Elena Klaw, Ph.D., SJSU psychology professor and the Civic Action Fellowship Program's primary investigator.

At San José State​, the civic action fellows are engaged in a number of service opportunities, including volunteering with local nonprofits, where they learn from and are mentored by nonprofit leaders, and participating in national serve days with AmeriCorps (which partly funds the program).

But they primarily work with after-school programs, teaching coding and STEM to third- through sixth-grade students at underserved schools under the direction of Andrea Tully, the Civic Action Fellowship Program's co-primary investigator. While the work was initially in-person, students are now developing learning kits for children to practice skills virtually during COVID-19.

Tiffany Maninang, a fourth-year civil engineering major and civic action fellow, is currently working with a group of program fellows to create a kit that will help young students learn how to code using Scratch, a platform that demonstrates the mechanics of coding using color-coded blocks.

San José State Civic Action Fellowship Program Coordinator Joanna Solis working with two girls through the Cyber Spartans progra  San José State Civic Action Fellowship Program Coordinator Joanna Solis during the Spring 2019 Cyber Spartans pilot program. The Cyber Spartans program was expanded into the Civic Action Fellowship Program at SJSU.
SJSU student Christopher Conetta helping two boys on laptops through the Cyber Spartans program.  The Cyber Spartans program focused on teaching computer programming to youth in after-school programs. Christopher Conetta, 2019 SJSU B.A. graduate, current Human Factors graduate student, teaching students using Scratch during the 2019 pilot program.

“I'm there to support them in the career they want to pursue in STEM or computer sciences, and I'm there to inspire them," she says. “They need this encouragement and the activities, so they're inspired to learn despite their conditions at home where they're not interacting with other students or their teachers."

In addition, SJSU fellows are developing a public health promotion campaign to help stop the spread of COVID-19 under the direction of Dr. Klaw. “For us, meeting the critical needs of California right now, of course, relates to the COVID pandemic," she says. The campaign largely involves creating social media posts encouraging college students to practice social distancing, wear a mask, wash their hands and avoid indoor gatherings.

“Many of our community members—particularly college-age people and young adults—are not abiding by those guidelines," Klaw explains. “So instead of blaming and shaming college students, which seems to be an approach that's deployed and never works, we are asking members of that generation to come up with strategies and ideas that might enhance health promotion, prevention and safety measures for their cohort."

While the program gives students an avenue for giving back to their communities, it also helps them develop job skills and expand their résumés, especially through trainings in working with underserved communities and recognizing systematic barriers to education. For example, Maninang was able to earn her mandated reporter certificate.

“Joining this program, I wanted to improve my leadership skills, my social skills and expand my network," Maninang says. “… Collaborating with different majors has improved my thought process and how I interact with other people. It's also very good practice for my personal time management and communication."


Learn more about how the CSU engages young voters, and find a list of campuses that host voting centers.