Last Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown announced the appointment of junior Maria Manjarrez to the California Student Aid Commission, where she will help shape policies around the states’ financial aid systems to make higher education more accessible to all Californians.
Manjarrez, who is majoring in public policy and political science, transferred to USC from Pasadena City College in August 2017. As a Norman Topping Scholar, she receives money for expenses like tuition or educational trips, but also relies on CalGrants to afford resources like textbooks. As a student representative for CSAC and through her work in politics, Manjarrez hopes to create change for underrepresented and low-income students like herself.
“[My parents] have undergone so many extreme circumstances for me to have an education, specifically a quality education here at USC that I will always value and treasure,” Manjarrez said. “So me getting not one but two degrees really is the way for me to pay my parents back for everything they’ve done for me. [It’s] not only because I’m the first person in my family to receive two college diplomas, but [because] I’m also in a field where I can help millions and tons of other people.”
Trista Beard, associate director of the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund, said Manjarrez stood out to her as a passionate and hardworking student because she visited the Norman Topping office often to discuss her career goals and inquire about ways to get involved on campus. Beard nominated Manjarrez to travel with the Office of Financial Aid to Sacramento last spring to discuss her CalGrant experiences with legislators and legislative aids.
“She knows there’s people out there that maybe wouldn’t speak up for themselves or don’t know where they should or could speak up,” Beard said. “So she says ‘I will. I will happily speak up for my community and say there are students out here that really need these grants to get an education, and education can help us even the playing field.’ And she believes that.”
A few months later, Manjarrez received an email from the Office of Financial Aid asking if she would like to be nominated for CSAC — she agreed. After an interview with the governor’s office and a phone call several months later, she was appointed to the two-year position.
Alejandro Lomeli, a junior at California State University, Long Beach, has served as another student commissioner at CSAC for the past year and will work alongside Manjarrez. According to Lomeli, the Commission is working on removing barriers to give all students, regardless of age or time out of high school, access to the financial assistance they need.
“I think [Manjarrez is] going to bring a lot of expertise from the private sector, which we haven’t seen in a while,” Lomeli said. “Most of the students we’ve had on the Commission have been from UCs or CSUs, so now it looks like we might have a student representing some of the private sectors which are kind of seen as like financial aid [not being] much of a problem over there, so it’ll be nice to have that mentality or that vision from a student living that experience.”
While Manjarrez’s first meeting as a student commissioner isn’t until mid-September, she said she’s been doing research and working with Lomeli to establish the expectations for her role. She’s grateful for the people and organizations that have helped make her education more affordable and hopes to provide the same resources for more students in California.
“What resonates with me a lot is that I see all of these kids, including myself, that work so hard, that come from different walks of life and that there’s a commission dedicated to help kids like us,” Manjarrez said. “And what I like to do, since Topping did so much for me and outside resources have done so much for me, I want to pay it forward now.”