While many of his peers played after school sports or prepared for college applications, Anthony Leon Chumpitazi and his mother were moving from apartment to apartment, barely making ends meet off his mother's meager salary.
"We lived from bedroom to bedroom from fourth grade to senior year of high school," he said. "I grew up really poor in a single bedroom with no kitchen, no bathroom, no living room."
As senior year rolled around, college seemed like a distant dream. He'd been accepted into University of California at Riverside, but even with financial aid, he'd need to find $5,000 each semester to cover housing. He set his sights on community college, knowing he'd still have to pay for books, transportation and other expenses.
Then Leon Chumpitazi saw a poster advertising for the San Mateo County Community College District’s Promise Scholars Program and, with his counselor’s help, submitted an application.
The program, which launched with 139 students at Skyline College in 2016 and has since grown to include Cañada College and the College of San Mateo, provides financial assistance to cover tuition, food, transportation, school supplies and other fees for a select number of students. The program also provides academic and career development counseling.
When Leon Chumpitazi got his acceptance, he was overjoyed. The possibility of attending community college at zero cost was "a relief," both for him and his mother.
Now, a third-year student at Cañada College, Leon Chumpitazi is part of a coalition advocating to expand the program and direct additional district funding to help more students attend community college for free. On Thursday morning, he joined a crowd of more than 150 students, administrators and local officials to demand Gov. Gavin Newsom's support for a new state bill that would do just that.
"Promise Scholars has also helped me understand and feel confident (in) where I want to go," he told an enthusiastic crowd. "I really enjoy being at Cañada College, and I really enjoy the programs. If it can be passed down to other students, that would be great."
Senate Bill 893, which was introduced by State Sen. Josh Becker, D-Menlo Park, in January, would allow the SMCCCD to charge students a lower enrollment fee than that mandated by state law. With support from assembly members Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park, and Kevin Mullin, the bill was passed by a unanimous vote from the State Senate on Aug. 24 and presented to Newsom the following week.
If signed by the governor, the bill would enable the district to waive or reduce enrollment fees and to use some local funds to offset other costs for students.
"Dismantling the large and rising wall of college costs and breaking down barriers to access is the top priority of our board," said John Pimentel, a member of the district's board of trustees and fervent supporter of the bill.
According to Pimentel, who attended San Joaquin Delta Community College in Stockton, community college was free at the time. "Unfortunately in 1985, tuition was first implemented at community colleges statewide. It was a sad day," he said.
The current cost to attend community college is "a huge, intimidating and insurmountable wall for many," he added, citing decreasing enrollment in community colleges and $1.7 trillion in student debt nationwide. "So, what do you say, governor, will you allow this wall to stand? Or will you let our county reallocate our existing resources and our existing local funds, to live up to the original vision of the community college system?"
A large cohort of students from all three of the district's colleges attended the rally. Decked out in school spirit wear and holding signs that read "SB 893 is good for students!" they crowded onto the steps at Cañada College to show their support for passing the bill. Also in attendance were local and state officials, including SMCCCD’s college presidents and board members, Chancellor Michael Claire, Redwood City Mayor Giselle Hale and Sequoia Union High School District Superintendent Darnise Williams, among others.
"This bill is imperative and one step closer for school districts, legislative bodies, and communities to come together and ensure that students are well,' Williams told the Pulse before the rally. Addressing the governor directly during her speech, she added: "Our children can only be well if, in fact, they are allowed to pursue the dreams that they have been promised” and if they are guaranteed "equal opportunity and access to excellence."
She also said that there was a significant population of SUHSD who would directly benefit from its passage.
"I think it's going to have an immediate impact. It will let those students who are reticent and say college isn't an option, to see that it is an option," she said.
Currently, all community colleges statewide are required to charge students an enrollment fee of $46 per unit per semester. For students, housing, food, transportation, books and other supplies and expenses can add up to more than $15,000, according to a state staff report.
Additionally, under existing state law, SMCCCD is only able to fund roughly 2,000 of the 6,000 students eligible to participate in Promise Scholars, even though more funding is available through the program.
"Although San Mateo County as a whole is more prosperous than other areas in California, there are major educational and socio-economic gaps in the county," according to a February press release from Becker's office.
If the legislation passes, district leaders said they plan to expand Promise Scholars and make community college tuition-free for all 6,000.
Leon Chumpitazi, who serves on Cañada College’s student senate and is vice president of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, is working towards a degree in biology with plans to transfer to UCLA and pursue a career researching neuro-degenerative diseases.
None of this would have been possible without having his college fees completely covered.
"When I transfer…with the money I've accumulated through scholarships, I'm basically fully covered," he said. "That's something I’m really proud of."