Drea Alonzo ’26 and Veronica Bañuelos ’24 Advocate for More College Access

Drea Alonzo, left, and Veronica Banuelos on campus

Like many teenagers in Salinas, Calif., Drea Alonzo ’26 thought the only option a first-generation, low-income high school graduate had to pursue higher education was the local community college.

“I come from an immigrant family,” the 19-year-old says. “My parents didn’t have any resources or money to send me to a four-year institution without me having to get a part-time job or them picking up more jobs.”

Only when Alonzo learned about the Cal Grant program did she see all her options.

Now in her second year at , Alonzo is among a cohort of students advocating for increased funding for the Cal Grant program so first-generation, low-income high school graduates can attend a California college based on preference rather than cost.

Such students often “don’t have money to go UCs or CSUs, let alone independent colleges like Pomona,” says Alonzo, a politics and Chicana/o-Latina/o studies double major. “Increasing Cal Grant funding would make it a lot easier and less of a burden to look at the price tag of quality colleges in California.”

A Cal Grant is state aid for college that students do not need to pay back. Grant amounts vary depending on the college and the student’s qualifications.

In February, Alonzo and Veronica Bañuelos ’24 for the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities’ annual Day at the Capitol, where those in the higher education group shared with state decision-makers how valuable financial aid is to a large swath of students.

“In high school, I felt helpless,” Alonzo says. “As a low-income person of color, I felt there was only so much I could do myself to make change. Through programs like these I get a megaphone for my voice, which is very empowering.”

Bañuelos, a former PAYS student by way of San Bernardino, Calif., started advocating for her community while in high school, serving in her local assemblymember’s Young Legislators Program for teens.

As a child of immigrants, the philosophy, politics and economics major says, “I’ve always seen a gap between those governing and those being governed—whether at the local, state or federal level.”

“The Day at the Capitol,” Bañuelos adds, “was an opportunity to bridge those communities, and was especially important for me as a first-generation student to bring a voice to not just my hometown and my college, but also my friends and family. It was also meaningful for me to bring my story to the attention of people who have the power to change my life and the lives of those in my community.”

Much like Alonzo, Bañuelos is passionate about college access and educational equity.

The 22-year-old has worked at Pomona’s Draper Center since her first year at the College. As a program coordinator at Draper, she encourages those of similar backgrounds in and around the community to realize there is value in the uniqueness of their stories.

“As I’ve immersed myself in my degree,” Bañuelos says, “as I’ve engaged in more internships outside Pomona, I’ve been intentional about returning to my community to share my knowledge and encourage other students to take advantage of and thrive in institutions and spaces where they’re underrepresented.”