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Chico State

Lifting Up Others Through Self-Discovery

Alisha Sharma addresses incoming students at Wildcat Welcome.
Jason Halley

Associate Student President Alisha Sharma and volunteers help new students prepare for the Big C photo during Wildcat Welcome on Friday, August 24, 2018 in Chico, Calif. (Jason Halley/University Photographer/CSU Chico)

Alisha Sharma has a serious case of FOMO.

Fear of missing out has been a happy curse for the graduating business administration major and Associated Students president ever since she arrived at Chico State.

Sharma doesn’t want to do the same thing twice. She wants to turn over every stone, hear everyone’s story, and nurture every connection she makes. Her friends sometimes groan when she presents a new to-do on the “Chico State bucket list” she created for them.

One of the lessons she learned during her time at Chico State, especially during her student presidency, is that she cannot possibly do it all—but it’s still worth trying.

It’s how her mom would do it, after all. Sharma, the daughter of Indian immigrants, often draws on the memory of her teenage years, when it was just her mother, Shruti, working multiple jobs to raise Alisha and her younger sister alone. In Alisha’s senior year of high school, Shruti was forced to leave the girls home alone every other month, for a month at a time, to visit their grandfather, suffering from cancer in New Delhi. Sharma developed much of her self-reliance during that period.

She soon began to learn that she was powerful in ways that could truly be of service to the world around her. Sharma grew up learning from the women in her family. She soon saw the same compassion she’d always seen in her grandmother starting to develop within her, and she couldn’t help but learn by Shruti’s example. Her mother’s work ethic had forever left an impression.

“Being an independent woman, being a woman of color, and being a leader are some of the strongest things I identify with,” Sharma said. “I feel a responsibility to advocate and to help lift people up. I don’t speak for every first-gen American, or all first-gen students, or all women of color. But being part of those historically underserved communities does give me a perspective and experience that allows me to work for them.”

AS President Alisha Sharma speaks at the inaugural debut of the Wildcat Leadership Institute's "Women Like You" Leadership Symposium.
AS President Alisha Sharma speaks at the inaugural debut of the Wildcat Leadership Institute’s “Women Like You” Leadership Symposium. (Jessica Bartlett/University Photographer)

But it wasn’t until after she arrived at Chico State that she truly began embracing leadership and advocacy roles. She found that she could inspire others to pursue goals outside their comfort zones. Sharma cultivated that passion through her own experiences as a first-generation American and college student. After moving away from the affluent, predominantly white Danville neighborhood of her youth and coming to Chico State, she felt a transformation happen almost immediately: A whole new world of different cultures, backgrounds, and stories opened up to her. Sharma had never quite felt a sense of place—until she came to Chico.

“Even my friends didn’t have similar stories to mine,” Sharma said, “whether it was economic status-wise, or just growing up only with my mom. … While they were always there for me, there was a level that they couldn’t relate to me, and that made me feel like I was the odd one out.

“I never felt a barrier. But when I look back, I can see it’s why I struggled.”

That changed at Chico State. As a freshman, Sharma pledged that she would force herself to be involved with as many different groups of people as she could, to hear others’ stories and gain exposure to the greater world around her.

“She genuinely wants every student to have the first-year experience she had, where college began to change her life,” said Jennifer Halford, Sharma’s supervisor during her time at the Wildcat Leadership Institute. “She takes the opportunities that come with leadership to heart, and that mostly comes from her kindness. She’s just one of those wonderful people.”

Sharma hadn’t planned to join student government, but as she continued fostering relationships across campus, it became clear that it was a natural fit. She joined Freshman Leadership Opportunity (FLO), which eventually created a pathway to her interest in AS government. In 2018, she was elected AS president after serving in an interim capacity the semester before, the first woman of color to hold that position.

Along the way, she gained a hyperawareness of systemic inequality and barriers to opportunity among underserved communities—and with it, a feeling she hadn’t experienced before.

“I realized that, actually, I had quite a bit of privilege I hadn’t considered,” Sharma said. “I haven’t been in situations of food or housing insecurity. I have always been allowed to have a voice. Many people have not had any of that.”

She has developed a zest for transformation, specifically in creating opportunities for economic and social mobility. Sharma’s job post-graduation will be a global sales position in the Business Leadership program at LinkedIn, a role that should allow her to gain experience perfectly aligned with her undergraduate career in business management. She sees her new position as an opportunity to continue the education she received at Chico State—both the one represented on her diploma, and the body of work she compiled in leadership.

Long-term, Sharma knows she wants to work, in some capacity, in higher education or public administration, possibly even running for office. Halford said Sharma’s experience in supporting others and recognizing her own power to instigate change would suit her well, no matter what she does.

“She’s always open to feedback and that helps ground her and keep her connected to who she is,” Halford said. “She’s always held on to who she is, even as she was discovering who that person was.”

Sharma’s also learned that leadership isn’t always a thankful position. Her greatest struggle as AS president was that she also identifies as a people-pleaser and an achiever, someone who can listen to everyone and who “just gets things done.”

Solutions that satisfy 17,000 students, she found, were hard to come by.

“I’d have these overwhelming days where I’d want to sit down and have a cry,” she said. “But, as I reflect on it, those were necessary to become the leader I want to be. And that’s the beauty of seeking out connections and building relationships—I never had to do it alone.”

As Sharma wraps up her undergraduate career and bows out of AS leadership, she hopes she’ll get some time to check a few more things off the Chico State bucket list before she begins her LinkedIn job in San Francisco. She has her eye on a handful of hikes around the Chico area she hasn’t explored yet. She badly wants one last board game night with her nine roommates, though they still tease her for her unyielding drive to play Uno. She’s got a mile-long book backlog, with Michelle Obama’s Becoming at the top of the list.

“I want to experience everything I can,” Sharma said. “I think we all need to continue to change and to keep finding adventures.”