Creating Pathways for Success
Kalwis works toward keeping education and healthcare affordable
In June of 2011, Kalwis Lo graduated from UC Santa Cruz and moved back to southern California to be near his family. Just two months later, he was diagnosed with stage III Hodgkin’s lymphoma. To add to this devastating news, Kalwis did not have health insurance and was unable to get coverage as his illness was deemed a pre-existing condition. “I thought my life was over before it had really begun.”
Kalwis had already come so far. He was the first in his family to go to college. It had been his parents’ dream —though, like many working class, immigrant parents, they didn’t have the ability to actively support him academically. They worked long hours in sewing factories to pay bills and put food on the table for their children. But they encouraged Kalwis and the values they taught him gave him courage. With the support of high school teachers and counselors Kalwis was able to find out about waivers for things his family could not afford and deadlines for federal student aid.
Not only did Kalwis make it to college, he became student body president for UC Santa Cruz. It was another dream come true. As a child, Kalwis would listen to his grandfather talk about his life as a community leader and mayor in Vietnam. Kalwis dreamt of becoming leader like his grandfather, but the reality was he could hardly speak up in his grade school classes. “I thought of myself as shy and timid. It didn’t help that I never saw public figures or even actors that looked like me. Subconsciously it made me believe I wasn’t good enough for anything or deserved the things I wanted.”
Kalwis had arrived at UC Santa Cruz, focused on academics and personal growth. Walking by a student government table, he was recruited to help register students to vote. Kalwis figured it was a good way to contribute and learn new skills without getting too involved. But his peers encouraged him to be an intern and he began learning about issues of college access and affordability. He found himself working alongside inspiring student organizers in the UC Student Association (UCSA) and U.S. Student Association (USSA), lobbying state and federal officials.
When one of his peer mentors asked Kalwis to run for student body president, he could not imagine being in such a high profile position. But student government meetings were getting contentious and other students encouraged him to run so Kalwis decided to take the challenge.
“I knew I had good mentors at SOMeCA who would be honest with me and work with me day-to-day. Looking back, I can’t imagine what life would be like for me if I had turned down this role. I would not be effective as a professional if it weren’t for the skills I learned working through the challenges of student government. It changed my life.”
Kalwis ran as a Progressive Student candidate and won the presidency. As the chair for student government meetings, he felt a particular responsibility to bring students together in order to fight for access and affordability.
“I made it a priority to listen to what others had to say even if I disagreed with them. I worked at becoming a better facilitator and public speaker and worked in collaboration with other student leaders.”
Kalwis became known for his optimism, inclusive leadership, and ability to build consensus. He gained the respect of students across the campus and easily won re-election the following year.
Back home, lying in bed and watching the news to keep up with politics, Kalwis saw the House of Representatives take action to undo the Affordable Care Act (ACA). He remembered mobilizing UCSC student in 2010 to urge California’s senators to support the higher education component of the legislation. As he researched the ACA further, he discovered California had contracted with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide medical coverage to individuals with pre-existing conditions. Kalwis had found a way to obtain health insurance, which ultimately saved his life.
His battle with cancer and insurance companies made Kalwis even more determined to work for access and equity. “My ability to obtain health coverage and complete chemotherapy treatments was no accident. First, it was due to thousands of people who made sure the ACA became a reality. Second, it was due to my getting an education. Too many low-income families lack access to education and to vital information and resources. I know from personal experience: a college education can save your life.”
Although still regaining his strength, Kalwis was determined to do something meaningful for students across the country. He left home to accept the position of USSA Legislative Director in Washington, DC. Kalwis brought energy and collaborative skills to his work on important legislation. He represented students in negotiating the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act (passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama) and played key roles in regulatory processes through the U.S. Department of Education. For Kalwis, his work in the capitol has been another dream.
“Who would’ve thought that someone like me would have the opportunity to shape laws and regulations that directly affect millions of students?”
Kalwis now serves as the Director of Policy and Advocacy at Scholarship America, where he is responsible for running the operations of its Washington, D.C. office and advancing its public policy agenda. This includes working with the White House on key education initiatives around federal student aid and college affordability and with Members of Congress to address the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
“My parents often tell me that it’s incredible that they went from almost losing me to witnessing all the work I’m doing now,” Kalwis said. “It hasn’t been easy, but I’m really motivated by my life experiences to do the best I can to create pathways for others to succeed.”