By Lori Miller
Senior Ryan Lobsien’s Chico State story begins with a sweater.
A cardinal red symbol of aspiration and potential, it became a door to the future and a connection to his past.
“My sophomore year in high school, I was in a program called AVID [Advancement Via Individual Determination],” said the first-generation student from Stockton. “We went on a field trip to Chico State, and once I saw the campus, that was it. It was so beautiful, like nothing I’d ever seen.”
He went to the bookstore and bought a Chico State sweater. Throughout his junior and senior years, he wore it often to remind himself of his goal to one day attend the picturesque campus in the North State.
Fast forward two years, the newly admitted undergraduate was working as a counselor at a Salvation Army summer camp in Nevada City before starting college. One evening, he met a visiting Chico Corps pastor who approached him because of his sweater and encouraged him to join the Chico Salvation Army staff once settled in at the University.
“Ryan has always shown that he is mature and responsible,” said Nathan Yant (Business Administration, ’12), who hired Lobsien at the Chico Salvation Army in 2015. “I believe this is because he was forced to grow up before he should have. From my experience, this is not typical. It takes someone special to get to where Ryan is today with as little help that he has had.”
Responsibility found the communications major at an early age. Living with a single mother and two younger siblings in Lodi and later Stockton, he assumed a parenting role while still a child himself. Lobsien started working at age 12, getting up at 5 a.m. and first pulling weeds and watering, before starting the noisy lawnmower at 8 a.m.
There were family conflicts, he said, and he spent a lot of time attending youth programs, summer camps, and later teen programs. He describes himself as a people person and credits the Salvation Army with developing that side of his personality.
At Chico State, Lobsien built a reputation for being a friendly, confident young man and a remarkable student with a deep passion for serving others. He’s come a long way, he admits, from arriving uncertain he belonged or that he was good enough for college. As part of the Educational Opportunity Program and Summer Bridge, he began to realize his true potential.
Among his academic courses, Lobsien most appreciated classes that pushed him to grow. One of his favorites was communications professor Zach Justus’ “Freedom of Speech” course, where he could challenge himself and others in the class to explore new ways of thinking.
“Ryan was an amazing student to have in class,” Justus said. “He was energetic, insightful, and thoughtful. Ryan sees the world differently than his peers, and everyone benefited from that.”
On a personal level and by necessity, Lobsien is self-reliant and cautious. He never lets his bank account drop too low, and he has a credit score that would be the envy of many older adults. When friends would go to parties, he always declined.
“I stayed home and played video games,” he said. “I think about the future. I have this addictive gene in my family. I don’t know if I have it, and I don’t want to find out.”
He’s also maintained a full-time job through most of college. Lobsien began working with the Salvation Army Chico Corps his first semester, winning Yant over by bringing a ukulele and performing a song as an example of his creativity.
“Ryan was determined to do whatever he could to get the job. He has persevered through many things in his life and has always set goals,” said Yant. “These goals would seem to be a long shot for some of the obstacles that Ryan has faced, but nothing can stop Ryan.”
Lobsien understands firsthand many of the family issues faced by the kids he works with in Chico.
“I 1,000 percent see myself in these kids,” he said, noting he hopes to inspire in them some of the confidence he developed through his Chico Experience.
Now, as he begins to think about life after graduation, Lobsien knows two things. With minors in international studies and project management, he would like to find a communications role in marketing or sales. But just as important is that work-life balance, as he hopes to continue his community service or volunteer for a nonprofit in his free time.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has interrupted his plans. Earlier this spring, he cut back on his hours at work to better focus on job prospects and his final semester of school. In March, he was interviewing for three positions and scheduled for his first-ever airplane flight for an interview in Colorado. As the COVID-19 situation became more dire, the job opportunities fell through when businesses and travel were shut down.
Lobsien returned to Stockton when classes shifted to online. He considers himself fortunate that he was able to pick up shifts with a former employer and that his office has Wi-Fi, which he does not have at home with his grandmother and aunt, so he can finish his studies remotely.
He draws resilience from friends, including his high school teachers whom he meets for coffee. He also has a mentor, Shane Brodie, whom he met when first mowing lawns and remains a constant in his life, encouraging him to persist in college during his most difficult moments.
The first time his education almost went off track was the summer before Lobsien started classes at Chico State and after his job at the Nevada City summer camp ended.
“Before I started, I was sleeping in my car. I was really embarrassed to say that to anybody,” he said. “That was the first and last time that I didn’t talk to anyone about [a crisis].”
A week before school began, Lobsien was able to move into his residence hall, but the experience shattered his confidence.
The second tipping point was a moment of opportunity. Recognized for his good work over summer and winter breaks, Lobsien’s boss in Stockton offered him a manager position. It paid well, and Lobsien was tempted to drop out. This time, he went to Brodie, his co-workers, and his grandmother to talk it through. His decision came down to two factors: He was already halfway through college and, when he graduated, he would be the first in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree.
He describes one defining moment when Justus encouraged him to pursue graduate school. Just knowing that someone believed in him and his abilities boosted his self-esteem.
“Coming from nothing and having nothing, all these opportunities to do something with my life, I realize that is one of the greatest things,” he said.
He won’t forget his Chico Experience, which he knows will continue to shape his future as much as it did his past. Meanwhile, he is excited to soon add another piece of Wildcat attire to his collection—one that lists his name on the back as a 2020 graduate of the College of Communication and Education.
Lori Miller is the special assistant to the president at Chico State with 25 years of experience in reporting, writing, and communications.