CSSA President Mia Kagianas promotes student voices, a ‘caring campus’

It’s a story Mia Kagianas probably has told more times than she can count. During her first year as a Sacramento State student, unsure how to make friends, she sat at a table outside the campus Starbucks with a sign reading “Free conversations,” waiting for someone to join her.

Eventually, as she was packing up to leave, another student finally took her up on the offer. The conversation was awkward, she says, but it gave her enough confidence to walk to the University Union and sign up to host a radio show on KSSU, an action that set off a chain of events culminating in her election as Associated Students Inc. president for the 2017-18 school year.

“Being able to express myself through KSSU, even if there wasn’t anyone listening, was my chance to share what my experience had been and let out some of the struggles I was facing,” Kagianas says. “That’s when I first realized the power of sharing student stories, what we face each day.”

Sharing student stories will remain at the center of Kagianas’ life in the weeks and months ahead: She recently was elected president of the California State Student Association (CSSA) and will spend her final year at Sacramento State advocating on behalf of students across the CSU.

“It’s important that students’ voices are heard because (ours are) the lived experiences,” Kagianas says, adding that challenges students face such as housing insecurity and loan debt can have a ripple effect throughout the entire regional economy. “We can be the representation and symbols behind whether a system is working properly.”

As ASI president, she focused especially on fostering a “caring campus” at Sacramento State. The topic hits home for Kagianas, who came to the University from a small suburb outside Chicago knowing very few people and unable, because of work obligations, to devote any time to extracurricular activities. She felt isolated. Faculty and even Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen were there for her in her time of need, offering support and directing her to campus resources.

Over the previous year, she worked to make ASI and its programming more accessible to students, changing election bylaws so more students can participate, improving communication to students, and raising the visibility of ASI programs such as Peak Adventures, the Aquatic Center, and the weekly food pantry.

“We’ve redefined what it means to belong,” she says. “We have experiences on campus that are available to students, but maybe students are timid or they don’t feel like it’s for them. Sacramento State and the people on this campus try to tear down those ideas of ‘You can’t do this’ and make it, ‘You can do this, this place is for you.’ ”

Creating a more caring campus is a goal that has been shared with Nelsen, with whom Kagianas has developed a strong relationship and considers a mentor.

“I’ve learned a lot from (Nelsen) and how he leads, which has inspired my leadership,” she says. “But he also trusts me with decisions. Before he makes certain university decisions, he’ll ask me what my perspective is. I feel really empowered by that trust.”

Nelsen praised Kagianas’ commitment to her fellow Hornets and her work to promote a caring campus.

“It has been my absolute privilege to get to know Mia over the past few years, and to work so closely with her during her presidential term,” he says. “Mia’s heart for her fellow students and her tireless efforts to make Sac State a place of belonging are outstanding. I look forward to seeing her over the next year while she completes her degree, and then to watch her journey after she leaves Sac State.”

Though she came from out of state, Sacramento was not completely foreign to Kagianas. It’s where her father spent much of his childhood, and where she visited often as a kid to see family and to go skiing in Tahoe. Growing up in a family of small business owners, she knew she wanted to major in a business-related field, eventually settling on human resources management and entrepreneurship as concentrations, the latter of which she had been interested in since it was the result she got after taking a careers test in the sixth grade.

“I was really thankful Sacramento State offered a concentration in entrepreneurship because it’s becoming more and more relevant in our society and not that many colleges have it as an emphasis,” she says.

Sixth grade also was where she began her time in student government, becoming elected to her middle school student council. In high school, she broke the mold by serving as the student body president all four years. At Sacramento State, she previously served with ASI as director of undeclared students and director of business administration, as well as vice president of finance for the CSSA.

“This is a campus where I’ve found who I am, I’ve found what my passions are, and I found a family that will be very, very hard for me to leave,” she says. “I hope to always be very strongly connected to it no matter where I am or what I’m doing in my life.”

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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.”

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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.”

Former Cadet Wing Commander takes flight after graduation

(Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)
Evan Yanagihara passes along his duty as Cadet Wing Commander at Sac State’s Air Force ROTC Parade. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

Cadet Evan Yanagihara, who is graduating this spring, is leaving behind a legacy at Sacramento State’s Air Force ROTC program as Cadet Wing Commander of Detachment 088. He will be commissioned in June as an Air Force second lieutenant, joining Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training – an internationally manned, highly competitive training program in Texas.

Yanagihara’s impressive resume includes receiving the 2016 Cadet of the Year Award and the 2012 Civil Air Patrol Life Saving Award for saving a friend’s life, among several recognitions for leadership and academic excellence. He was honored May 13 at the Air Force ROTC Parade with Cadet Wing Change of Command, where he passed along his role as commander to Cadet Matthew Silpasornprasit.

Lt. Col. Kenneth Morse, commander of Sac State’s Air Force ROTC program, calls Yanagihara a clear standout achiever in the program.

“He is the top cadet in our detachment, and I will be proud to send him to be an active-duty officer this summer,” Morse says. “Cadet Yanagihara is the sort of young man I am comfortable giving the reins of our Air Force to. He is truly an exceptional leader, person, and airman.”

In addition to his success in the ROTC program, Yanagihara excelled as a Mass Communication Studies major.

“As a member in the Air Force, it is inevitable that you’re going to have to stand up and give briefings. Because of that, we practice them in ROTC,” Yanagihara says. “A particular class I had that helped me was Intro to Media Creation with Professor  (Diego) Bonilla, which helped me create an instructional poster for our cadets that will hopefully be used for years.”

The El Dorado Hills-born cadet knew he wanted to join the Air Force at age 12, when he joined the Civil Air Patrol. At 16, he knew he wanted to be a pilot after attending local air shows.

Our Made at Sac State graduate is to be honored this June at the Air Force ROTC Commissioning Ceremony at Mather Field.