Above all else, stand positive in the face of adversity, insecurity, and failure.
Finding himself with a 1.8 GPA after his first two years of college, Garret Liles took a break from schooling but returned and wrote his own major when he was ready to try again.
Debra Larson overcame years of gender-based discrimination in the field of engineering to encourage countless young women to help shatter the industry’s perceptions of who belongs.
As the first one in his family to attend a four-year university, Dave Brown pushed beyond feeling like an imposter in his college courses to eventually earn his PhD and become a university department chair.
“The most humbling experience of my life—people ask ‘What was the scariest thing you’ve ever done?’—was going to Berkeley. I felt like I was the dumbest kid in the room but I didn’t give up because that’s what my mom taught me,” Brown said.
Faculty and administrators shared powerful messages of determination, aspiration, and perseverance with more than 100 students over the course of two evenings during this fall’s Discernment Dinners. The second annual event, hosted by University Housing in Sutter Dining, aimed to inspire first-year students by the many paths it takes to persist to a degree and carve out a career, said University Housing Director Abeer Mustafa.
The student guests represented disciplines across campus, recreation administration majors mingling with computer science students and pre-nursing majors seated next to social work students. The meal itself was an elegant affair, with linen-draped tables, elaborate fall-themed centerpieces, attentive servers, and a gourmet four-course menu.
The dinner started like many formal dining experiences, each table shaking hands and making small talk about majors, college life, and career goals. After a quick laughter-filled lesson in etiquette, the 10 featured speakers for the night began sharing their stories.
The speakers described their hometowns, hailing from as far as a rural town in China to a small mining community in Michigan and as close as being born at Enloe Medical Center four blocks from campus. And they talked about whether college began as a dream or an obligation, and if a childhood interest or adult epiphany led to their professional discipline.
Regardless of differences, they all shared a commonality: Each had encountered a roadblock somewhere along the way, and it was overcoming such obstacles that led to their career at Chico State.
“I wasn’t the smartest kid in my class at all but I think I was one of the most determined,” said Larson, the University’s provost and vice president of academic affairs.
When she landed her first job out of college as a structural engineer, she was the company’s first female engineer. A novelty—“I think my boss thought I was an alien”—Larson was rarely given real projects to work on and harassed daily.
“You know that #MeToo thing going on? Yeah, #MeToo,” she said, as students’ eyes went wide.
Nevertheless, Larson persisted, eventually going to grad school and finding her way to working in higher education, where her goal is to help today’s students learn both hands-on skills and theory rooted in academic rigor. Through it all, “sisu,” a Finnish term that means facing challenges with valor and determination, continues to resonate with her, and she told the students she hoped it would for them, too.
“It’s the capacity to power on when you have reached the end of your physiological or psychological rope,” she said. “Being here … you are all demonstrating some sisu.”
Liles, a professor in the College of Agriculture, agreed.
“You’ve all demonstrated what it takes to get somewhere,” he said. “You worked hard, and you got here. If you are always working to get it done, people will rely on you and want to employ you. … Don’t just follow a path. Make your own.”
A first-generation student, Liles always knew he had to go back to college. He had taken a break after his first two years at Chico and Humboldt State, but when he returned, he found a mentor in geological and environmental sciences professor Dave Brown—another event speaker —who helped make him feel like he mattered.
Liles wrote his own major, finding excitement for the first time in being engaged, being enlightened, and thinking hard. He went on to earn his master’s and an eventual PhD and today specializes in soil science.
“I was once you, and you can actually all become me, or something like me,” he told the students of his professional success, noting all it takes is vision, hard work, eagerness, and curiosity.
Jed Wyrick grew up in a musical family—his brothers today are both professional musicians—but his shaky piano hands meant a career in music was off the table. Somehow, he turned his love of The Hobbit and interest in Ancient Babylon into learning ancient languages, including Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.
“They are hard for me, and I don’t think I’m great at them but I kept at it,” he admitted.
After his bachelor’s degree, he went on to earn a PhD from Harvard University. Today, among his other duties teaching classes in religion and serving as Academic Senate chair, he proudly notes he offers a course on CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein, essentially a study of Lord of the Rings, he told the bemused crowd.
“Eventually what you love and what you like is going to make a difference in your life,” he said. “And you find a way to make that work for you.”
When the dinner concluded, pre-nursing major Tia Peck went up to shake hands with those who had shared their stories. She said curiosity drove her to attend but she was grateful to connect with faculty and campus leadership to hear how their stories might inspire her own.
“It’s so inspiring. I’m ready to go out now and start studying,” she said. “They did struggle, and they made it here because they kept trying.”
Admittedly a bit awestruck by the stories, her friend and pre-nursing major Jessica Giordagengo agreed.
“To think someone could overcome those obstacles, it’s so inspiring and uplifting,” she said. “To know that however many times I fall down, get up and it will be OK. They were us at one point.”