Student Nicole King sits at the new CalWORKs reception desk across from a row of neatly lined-up cherry-red chairs. Across the way are strategically placed black and beige office cubicles, including an area where computers are conveniently placed for students to use as needed. The new and improved CalWORKs office is open for business, and Nicole is excited about it. “Students really like the new space,” she says. “It’s really nice and professional looking and there’s more privacy.”
CalWORKs is the county-funded program that gives residents who receive cash aid the opportunity to become self-sufficient by learning job skills to enter the workplace or go on to further their education. Part of the process is to encourage a positive environment where students feel good about their future.
That is what Dr. Lilia Chavez had in mind when she evaluated the area soon after being named Merritt’s Dean of Special Programs and Grants nearly a year ago.
“I had a vision for the flow of the space, but I wanted to be sure to get ideas from others as well,” she said. “So first we observed and interviewed the staff to see what they would like to change, and then we surveyed the students to see what they thought was working and what was not. We also met with our partners at the Department of Social Services.”
As Dr. Chavez recalls, “We wanted a space that would start with a reception area to make appointments, improve the customer service flow, and document our accountability. Then we created a new system of roles and responsibilities, and we had a series of partitions set up a to create privacy and confidentiality. And we made sure no one’s back was facing the door when students came in!”
She is pleased with the result of a well-run office with dedicated employees, re-purposed furniture, and a streamlined system that runs efficiently for both staff and students.
Says Carmen Johnson, Interim CalWORKs Coordinator and graduate of both Merritt and Mills College. “It’s a more professional atmosphere to mirror a real work environment, and it relieves some of the anxiety students may be feeling. It’s all about growth and development and changing people’s lives. Now they’ll have a degree that will put them in the playing field.”
Nicole, who helps students from her role at the receptionist desk, is a budding success story herself. With some background in the health field, she began studying Medical Assisting and then moved on to Business. At age 46, she will be graduating with both degrees in the fall after spending two years doing homework alongside her proud 10-year-old daughter. Nicole is also a member of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society (as are six other CalWORKs students).
“The CalWORKs office has been a very comfortable place for me to grow,” says Nicole, who has received several scholarships and letters of recommendation. “The best advice I got was to keep up with my attendance and GPA, always sit in the front of the class, and to keep on doing what I’m doing and don’t let anything get in my way!” Pictured (left to right): Sheiba Boissiere, LaVora Mathis-Payne, Nicole King, Dr. Lilia Chavez, Soledad Martinez, Marisol Roque, and Carmen Johnson