Jewelry, Sacramento State are both traditions for Sharif family

The first thing that happens when you walk into Sharif Jewelers is you are offered a cup of Turkish coffee and some baklava.

“My dad showed me that’s what you do when you greet people, you welcome them for a cup of coffee to break the ice and make them feel part of your family and part of your business,” says co-owner Mahmud Sharif ’84 (Mechanical Engineering). “It’s a Middle Eastern tradition, to be really hospitable, and I carried that with me.”

Tradition is big in the Sharif family. There’s the family business, which Sharif’s grandfather started in Jerusalem in the 1930s. Sharif and his brother Hazem continued the tradition by opening their own shop in Sacramento, which today has become a chain of stores run in part by their children.

Then there is a newer tradition taking shape: Sacramento State. Mahmud Sharif came to the United States to study at the University, and his three oldest children – Naser, Laila and Ali – as well as his nephew Omar all are Hornet alumni as well. His youngest son, Mohammad, or “Moe,” is currently a student.

“Sacramento State is a great school, especially for engineering,” he says. “I recommended it to them. It’s close to home. This is the place where they grew up. And they loved it.”

Several factors contributed to the Sharif children following their father to Sacramento State, including tradition, proximity, and reputation.

“For us it was part of the legacy to follow in his footsteps,” says Ali Sharif ’16 (Marketing), who now is the company’s vice president of marketing. “Working here, it was easy to go over to Sac State and they’re known for their business program, so for us it fit right in.”

A photo of Mahmud Sharif holding his Sac State diploma, standing behind a jewelry counter.
Mahmud Sharif shows off his Sacramento State diploma. Sharif immigrated to the United States from Jerusalem to study mechanical engineering. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

As a child growing up in Jerusalem, Mahmud Sharif says being in his father and grandfather’s shop was “amazing,” and it’s where he fell in love with jewelry and the family business. After school he would help out at the store, watching and learning as his father designed jewelry, ran the store and interacted with customers.

In 1980, Mahmud moved to the United States and began his time at Sacramento State. In addition to his engineering major, he minored in art, something that would come in handy down the line when he began designing jewelry. Around the same time, he and Hazem opened Sharif Jewelers on Howe Avenue.

“Sac State was really great,” he says. “I had the best years of my life. I had a lot of friends, did a lot of activities, and I had a great time.”

Following in their father’s footsteps started early for the Sharif children. They too practically grew up inside the store and worked there throughout college. Today, alongside Ali, Nasser ’11 (Business Management) serves as operations manager, while Laila ’13 (Psychology) works as a designer. Customers who they met as kids are now bringing their children and grandchildren in to purchase engagement rings.

“We’d come in on the weekends, we’d help our dad,” Laila says. “The customers, some of them we grew up with since we were little. A lot of our jewelers and employees we’ve had for over 10 years, so they literally watched us grow. It’s been fun.”

The jewelry store, they say, provided a perfect place to practically apply the knowledge they were gaining in classrooms at Sacramento State.

“What you learned in class, you could apply in actual work,” Naser says. “Go learn about it and come after to one of the shops and apply what you learned and discuss what you learned to help grow the business.”

(Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)
Ali Sharif (left) and his father, Mahmud Sharif, examine a piece of jewelry. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

Like many Sacramento State alumni, the Sharif children all stayed in their hometown – Moe plans to join the business after graduating next year – to continue the Sharif tradition started by their grandfather nearly a century ago.

“Sacramento’s just home,” Laila says. “It gave us wonderful opportunities, it’s always been good to us, and now it’s our time to give back. We can work and continue to build relationships with people and give back to the community that gave us everything to start with.”

Her father agrees.

“I really feel like Sac State formed me into who I am,” Mahmud says. “And I really like the atmosphere and the people and the diversity here in Sacramento. I want my kids who grew up here to live and excel here.”

Top photo, from left: Naser Sharif, Mohammad Sharif, Mahmud Sharif, Laila Sharif, and Ali Sharif. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)


Thesis project becomes thriving community center

Estella Sanchez ’04 (Social Science), M.A. ’08 (Education Leadership & Policy Studies) credits her parents and grandparents, who immigrated to the Sacramento region from Mexico to work first in agriculture and later in the construction industry, for instilling in her the importance of serving her community.

“They came with that idea of, ‘We’re staying, this is our home, and we want to give back,’” she says. “Even though they had low-paying jobs in agriculture, like many who immigrated to the region, they helped to build one of the largest economies in the world. Because of their sacrifices for me to have a better life, I’ve always felt that need to give back.”

So as a master’s student at Sacramento State, well aware of the systemic inequities in education and surrounded by classmates who shared her desire to address them, she came up with a unique thesis idea: an after-school program for underrepresented children that drew upon the community to provide resources and support.

That idea became Sol Collective, a center dedicated to arts, culture, and activism that today is based out of a 3,200-square-foot warehouse in Sacramento’s Curtis Park neighborhood. Sanchez founded the organization in 2005 and continues to serve as its executive director, overseeing a thriving community hub that offers educational programming, arts exhibits, community workshops, and other events focused on social justice and youth empowerment.

“When we opened up Sol Collective, we put out a call to the community that we have the space if you have something you want to offer,” Sanchez says. “We had people who wanted to teach cultural history to students. We had people who wanted to teach traditional health, silk screening, music production. All of these different people in the community came out, and we started to develop programming around it.”

That programming is varied and plentiful. Monday features free community yoga, while Tuesdays include Native American drumming classes. On Wednesdays, the organization offers political analysis of current events and training for activists through its “Sac Activist School.” Thursdays feature Aztec dancing and indigenous music classes. Art exhibit openings, film screenings, or music performances often take place on Fridays and Saturdays.

The name Sol Collective itself is a play on words. Sol, the Spanish word for “sun,” is a nod to Sanchez’s Mexican heritage. But it also, she says, evokes the phrase “everyone under the sun,” indicating that the collective is a space for all people to come together and get to know one another.

“When we live in the same community, we don’t always know why someone dresses the way they do or why they speak the way they speak, or why they have certain traditions,” she says. “A space like this allows everyone in the community to begin to learn about each other.”

It has been a busy few months. Sol Collective recently purchased the building it occupies, as well as hired its first full-time employees. Sanchez and her staff also have been fielding inquiries from organizations across the country looking to replicate their model.

As part of its youth outreach, the organization offers internships to high school students. One of their former interns is Salvin Chahal ’17 (Sociology), a Sacramento State alumnus who first came to Sol Collective in high school as part of the spoken word group Sacramento Area Youth Speaks, which practiced and performed there. He now works for the organization part time, helping with social media and event production.

When Chahal wanted to start producing spoken word and slam poetry shows himself, he knew exactly where to go.

“Sol Collective and Estella were always trying to provide a platform for young people of color, so I would produce shows here with my friends,” he says. “Whatever project you have, they’ll guide you. I’m just one example out of a multitude of people who have been able to launch a career and work specifically off their creative endeavors.”

Sanchez transferred to Sacramento State from Sacramento City College, while at the same time working as the youth program director for a drug and alcohol center in Oak Park. That experience exposed her to the ways in which both the juvenile justice and education systems were failing many young people of color – and inspired her to return to Sac State for graduate school.

“We expect all students to achieve the same way, yet some students are coming with a variety of complexities,” she says. “Having been in the community for a couple of years and being able to witness firsthand students coming out of juvenile justice and learning their stories, and having my own background, I got really interested in pursuing a master’s in education and seeing what I could do to support other students.”

At Sacramento State, Sanchez had the opportunity to take courses, including in ethnic studies, that helped her better understand her heritage and the importance of social justice, paving the way for her to create something like Sol Collective. She credits the late Professor Ricardo Favela for allowing her to take an independent studies course in which she began experimenting with community program development.

“I wouldn’t be doing any of this work if I hadn’t been at Sac State and specifically at Sac State, because I had access to these incredible professors who really shaped me as a person,” Sanchez says.

Michael Lynch builds cycle of support for high school, college students

Growing up in Stockton and Sacramento, Michael Lynch M.P.P.A. ’11 knew he had a support system that many of his fellow young men of color didn’t – a system he credits with helping him earn two college degrees.

“I wasn’t the smartest, I wasn’t the most athletic, but I was provided unique opportunities,” he says. “As an athlete, I got a chance to go to colleges across the state, I got specialized tutoring, I had mentorship from my middle school days. I had a dad at home, which was huge. Barely any of my friends had dads at home.”

Today, Lynch is working to ensure that those like him have similar support – and similar opportunities. In 2013, he and fellow Sacramento State alum Michael Casper ’10 (Communication Studies) co-founded Improve Your Tomorrow (IYT), a nonprofit that works to increase the number of young men of color who attend and graduate college by providing academic support services such as academic support, mentorship, college exposure, workshops, and internships. The program has a presence at 10 Sacramento-area schools and serves nearly 700 students.

“I wanted to impact young men of color and help them get to and through college,” he says, noting that black and Latino men remain, on average, the lowest-performing students in the state. “Create the system that helped me, from college tours, to mentorship, to study halls, to internships. Wraparound support to make sure these young men have the skills they need.”

Michael Lynch (left) with Improve Your Tomorrow co-founder and fellow Sacramento State alum Michael Casper. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

That support includes required weekly study halls, as well as monthly college workshops, community service projects, and team-building activities. IYT students visit college campuses and receive mentoring from IYT students currently in college – mentoring that continues even after they have been accepted into a college themselves. They are encouraged to apply to as many as 10 colleges – one of which must be Sacramento State.

The results have been remarkable. IYT has a 100 percent high school graduation rate, compared with 65 percent and 75 percent, respectively, for black and Latino males in California overall. Eighty-nine percent of IYT alums are accepted to a four-year college or university and 94 percent attend either a four-year or community college.

Running a nonprofit was far from Lynch’s mind when, in 2007 while a sophomore studying criminal justice at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in preparation for attending law school, a friend invited him to a campaign rally.

“There’s about 150 people in the room,” he says. “This guy gets on stage, and he’s talking about hope and change and what government can do to help others. And that was Barack Obama. That was his second campaign stop, and that got me thinking about how politics can be used to shape peoples’ lives.”

Lynch eventually transferred to Humboldt State and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration, then was accepted into Sacramento State’s Capitol Fellows program. After a year of working at the Capitol, he enrolled in the University’s Master’s in Public Policy Administration program.

The faculty at Sacramento State “pushed me like no other professor or teacher had in my entire academic career,” Lynch says. also learned that passion can produce results. He also built important relationships that were key to getting Improve Your Tomorrow off the ground, including with President Robert S. Nelsen, who became an early cheerleader for the program.

“Education is a powerful tool – one that can lift families out of poverty and reduce inequality. Michael is living proof of Sac State’s mission. Not only has he shown remarkable dedication in earning two CSU degrees, but through his work with Improve Your Tomorrow, he is also helping to ensure that the path to a college education remains open for hundreds of young men who are following in his footsteps,” Nelsen says. “He is changing lives, he is transforming our community, and he truly embodies what it means to be Made at Sac State.”

In 2017, Improve Your Tomorrow and Sacramento State launched a partnership called IYT U aimed at increasing the number of black and Latino men who graduate on time and prepared to enter the workforce. The partnership, which launched as a pilot with 35 Sacramento State students and plans to expand to 50-100 students each year, received a $20,000 CSU grant to develop scholarships, retreats, tutoring programs, and other support.

IYT U students must continue to attend study hall and participate in community service and leadership training – and they are required to go back to their high school and talk about what it means to attend college.

Keylen Newsome, a Sacramento State junior studying economics, says joining Improve Your Tomorrow while a student at Valley High School in south Sacramento gave him a new perspective on college. Although his grades were good, he had become disillusioned with higher education – the levels of student debt, and a shaky post-graduation job market, for example. IYT helped him realize that, by attending college himself, he could gain the skills and experience necessary to help others and change the system, which he does today as the program director for the IYT College Academy at Jackman Middle School.

“I built stronger relationships with guys I already had friendships with,” Newsome says. “I found male leadership that I didn’t have growing up. I found a sense of belonging. I was always involved in different organizations (in high school), but IYT is the only one I’m still involved with.”

It’s precisely the cycle Lynch envisioned when he helped found the organization five years ago. Provide support to high school students to help them get into college, so that they can in turn support the people coming up behind them.

“Education was my gateway, but so few people who look like me have those opportunities,” Lynch says. “We wanted to create an intentional opportunity to make sure these young men of color were supported.”