Nicholas Haystings brings no-cost STEM education to underrepresented youths

Nicholas Haystings ’16 (Mechanical Engineering) held several engineering jobs while attending and after graduating from Sacramento State. At all but one of them, he was the only person of color.

If that’s going to change, he says, it’s critical that young people from underrepresented backgrounds receive the message early that the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – are a place for them, too.

“It can’t start in college. It can’t even start in high school,” Haystings said. “The conversation has to happen when they’re at a young age, before the pressures of life and society get to them. Before they’re told that STEM isn’t for them, STEM isn’t for girls, STEM isn’t for people that look like you.”

Haystings is doing his part. He is the co-founder and executive director of Square Root Academy, an organization that provides STEM-based education and experiences to underrepresented groups, all at no cost to the participants. The program works with several local school district to provide after-school programming for fifth- through 12-graders, while also sponsoring STEM-focused community events.

Going into its third year, Square Root Academy anticipates it will have about 150 scholars in its after-school programs, while reaching thousands more through its annual Great STEM Summit and Hack the Park festivals.

“Growing up, I always had two goals: Become an engineer, and give back to the community,” Haystings said. “Once I realized my goal of becoming an engineer, got my degree, had some industry experience under my belt, there were a few things that were still bothering me. When you succeed, you’re supposed to bring people up with you, and that was why we started the academy.”

His work is getting noticed: The Sacramento Business Journal named Haystings to its 2019 “40 Under 40” list, which recognizes young professionals in the Sacramento region who “excel in their workplaces and in their communities.”

Interested in science and engineering from a young age, Haystings, a first-generation college student and Sacramento native, enrolled at Sacramento State to be close to home. He eventually decided to major in engineering and appreciated the University’s focus on experiential learning.

“A lot of STEM-based majors at universities, they’re very theory-based,” he said. “Sac State allowed us to get hands-on with the technology, to really experiment.”

The University also exposed him to a diverse range of people, who came with diverse ways of thinking and approaching problems, something he learned from and has carried into his professional life.

“It was a bit of culture shock, in a good way, in a way that helped me grow,” he said. “It expanded my understanding of the world and also my understanding of people.”

While a student, Haystings approached Lorenzo Smith, now the dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science, to discuss Square Root Academy. Smith was instantly struck by Haystings’ maturity, vision and commitment.

“He had a full time job and he gave that up to advance the mission of Square Root Academy, which, I’m not sure I would do that,” Smith said. “I can tell you I would not have done that. (It takes) someone like Nicholas who has that dedication to the community and also confidence in his abilities.”

Because he is from the neighborhoods Square Root Academy serves, Smith added, Haystings has credibility when he goes into the community to spread awareness of STEM careers.

“There’s a hunger for what Nicholas is providing,” Smith said. “He’s tapping into a need.”

After graduation, Haystings worked as an environmental engineer in both the public and private sector before helping to start Square Root Academy in 2016. The organization was funded entirely by Haystings and his two co-founders its first year. Today, private and corporate donations as well as partner school districts provide financial support.

At Valley High School, Haystings’ alma mater, working with Square Root Academy has helped students who may not have seen STEM as an option realize that it is.

“It changes their future, their life trajectory,” said Alex Gibbs, Valley High’s engineering chair. “A lot of these students wouldn’t believe that they could go to college and become engineers. But once you get them to believe in themselves, you’ve overcome the hardest hurdle.”

After utilizing Square Root Academy’s after-school programs last year, Valley High has transitioned to a mentorship model, in which the high school students receive résumé; review, help with college applications and other guidance from someone either studying a STEM field in college or working in a STEM career.

“We just really appreciate the work (Nicholas) does with us,” Gibbs said. “I’m glad he’s come back to Valley and given back to where he came from. We can’t appreciate that enough.”

Haystings and Square Root Academy have made accessibility – that is, ensuring their programming is available and relatable to the populations they serve – a priority. The Great STEM Summit and Hack the Park events are held in underserved neighborhoods such as Meadowview and South Sacramento, so that transportation is not a barrier to attendance. They are open to the public, which provides parents with the opportunity to see and engage with what their kids are learning. And the after-school programs are taught by professionals, academics and students who come from similar backgrounds as the participants.

“That representation piece is so huge,” Haystings said. “If a scholar doesn’t see themselves or anyone that looks like them in that position, they assume it’s not for them. It’s important that we show them they can do it and people who look like them can succeed in this field.”

For more information about Square Root Academy, visit the organization’s website.

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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.