Alumni News

SF State alum, author Ernest J. Gaines honored with USA stamp

Gaines (B.A., ’57) is most known for his novels ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman’ and ‘A Lesson Before Dying’

A San Francisco State University alumnus is the latest American to be honored with a first-class stamp from the U.S. Postal Service. The late novelist Ernest J. Gaines is the face of the 46th stamp in the Black Heritage Series

Gaines (B.A., ’57) is known for writing about the people in small-town Louisiana where he was raised, often exploring enslaved people, their descendants and their enslavers. He rose to fame in 1971 with “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” a historical novel chronicling the recollections of its 110-year-old Black protagonist, whose life spans from slavery to the civil rights era. After garnering a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize, it was adapted into an Emmy Award-winning television movie starring Cicely Tyson. His novel “A Lesson Before Dying,” about a Black man on death row for a murder he did not commit, not only won the 1993 National Books Critics Circle Award, but was also an Oprah’s Book Club selection. President Barack Obama awarded Gaines the National Medal of the Arts in 2013. Gaines died in 2019 at age 86. 

“Ernest J. Gaines remains an important role model for Creative Writing students at San Francisco State,” said May-lee Chai, associate professor and acting chair of the Creative Writing Department. “We remind our students that his first short story was published in our undergraduate journal, Transfer Magazine, which he later said led to multiple opportunities for him as a writer. His legacy as a literary giant and advocate for social justice is deeply inspiring.” 

Gaines was born in 1933 on a plantation in Oscar, Louisiana. He lived in the same former slave quarters where his family had been residing for five generations. At age 15, he moved to the Bay Area — the Navy town of Vallejo — due to a lack of educational opportunities in the South. His region of rural Louisiana lacked both a high school and a library where Black people were welcome. After Vallejo Junior College and the Army, Gaines enrolled at SF State. 

“It was there that I really got seriously into the writing,” Gaines said in a 2016 interview with the Academy of Achievement of his time at SF State. “I had some wonderful teachers on the campus at that time who were writers as well. And they encouraged me to write.” 

Learn more about the SF State Creative Writing Department. 


Alum’s Oscar-nominated film shows transformative power of kindness

‘Stranger at the Gate’ is screening in San Rafael Feb. 28

San Francisco State University alumnus Conall Jones (B.A., ’05) was floored when he learned the short documentary film he produced with the production company Smartypants was nominated for an Oscar. “Stranger at the Gate” is his proudest accomplishment to date, but the film wasn’t getting critical recognition at first. It wasn’t accepted into the Sundance, Telluride or SXSW film festivals, he says. But Jones wasn’t looking for recognition — what he wanted was people to see the film because of its powerful message.

“Stranger at the Gate,” a 2022 film executive produced by Nobel laureate and education activist Malala Yousafzai and released by The New Yorker, isn’t what it seems. It starts off like a true crime story, with hints about a terrorist plot and a possible suspect. “This was intentional so we would have the widest appeal as far of viewers. We wanted to draw people into the story,” Jones said. But the story is so much more than that. “It ends with positivity and love,” he added.

­­­The film is about former Marine Richard “Mac” McKinney, who returned home from service in Afghanistan to Muncie, Indiana. He suffered from PTSD and saw Muslims as targets, something he learned in combat. Fueled by fear and hatred, he began making plans to bomb the local mosque. When he went to the Islamic Center of Muncie to gather proof that they were dangerous people, he was welcomed with kindness. Not only did McKinney drop his terror plot, he ended up joining the community and converting to Islam.

“The message of the film is so great, especially with so much division and hatred out there,” Jones said. “This film is a lesson in expanding your horizons as far as people you interact with.”

Eventually, the film had a successful film festival run, winning major awards at Tribeca Film Festival, Indy Shorts and others, which qualified it for the Oscars, Jones says. And now he's promoting the film at theaters across the country in the lead-up to the Oscars.

He isn’t typically involved in the promotion of films. As a producer, his role is mostly behind the scenes helping to plan and strategize shoots abd build out stories with directors and production executives. For “Stranger at the Gate” he mapped out all the logistics for the shoot, did pre-interviews with sources and even did on-camera interviews. After filming wrapped, he stayed on to help director Joshua Seftel edit the film and craft the narrative.

The School of Cinema alumnus says he learned how to be deliberate about his shoots while at San Francisco State. “Because we were limited in the film supplies we had ... you had to plan everything out,” he said. “Every shot had to be storyboarded and there had to be a reason for taking that shot. Every shot was $5 because film processing wasn't cheap.”

He admits he was a mediocre student until he took an introductory course on documentary film with Professor Greta Snider during his sophomore year. “My grades went from B’s and C’s to straight A’s my final year because I kept doing as many documentary-related classes as I could,” he said. “Academically, I got much stronger because I found my passion.”

After college, it took Jones a few years to find his footing in the documentary film and TV world. Once he moved to New York City he started freelancing. Now, he has producing credits on several major projects, including Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9,” Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!” and Netflix's “Worn Stories.”

“I’ve worked on tons of documentaries that, if you include all of the TV episodes I’ve worked on, it’s probably 60 to 70 pieces,” he said. “But this film is my favorite because of its message. I feel like the message can transcend audiences like no other film can. ... I would like everyone in the U.S. to see this film.”

Learn more about SF State’s School of Cinema.


Digital asset pioneer and alum Chris Larsen returns to campus for student talk

The co-founder of Ripple and Prosper shared his insights on cryptocurrencies, sustainability and entrepreneurship

San Francisco State University alumnus Chris Larsen (B.S., ’84) made a special visit to campus Tuesday, Feb. 14, to take questions from Business students. Held at the University’s J. Paul Leonard Library, the talk covered such topics as cryptocurrencies, climate change, staying motivated and the importance of taking risks...and even failing.

“If you fail in America, particularly here in the Bay Area, it’s like a badge of honor. It makes you stronger for the next time. ... If you fail with honor and grace and treating people right, people remember that,” Larsen told students. “Failing with honor in the Bay Area — you’re stronger next time.”

More than 60 Finance seniors from San Francisco State’s Lam Family College of Business attended the event.

“Chris Larsen, as an SF State alumni, a successful executive and an angel investor focusing on sustainability and cryptocurrency, was able to share with students firsthand his outlook for the crypto ecosystem, his perspectives on sustainability issues, his entrepreneurial spirit and his advice for a successful career path — all of which are hard to get elsewhere,” said Assistant Professor of Finance Xue Snow Han, who helped organize the visit.

When asked for his advice on launching a new business venture, Larsen told students the first thing to look for is an opportunity to make a difference.

“When you start a business, look for a problem that you can solve,” Larsen said. “The basic idea of any business is product, market, fit, right? If you’re not solving a problem, then what’s the point? And that might sound obvious, but as you guys probably have seen, there are so many technology companies that come up with a shiny new thing. They don’t really know what they’re solving. And lots of bad things happen from that.”

Larsen co-founded online mortgage lender E-Loan in 1996, and later helped launch Ripple Labs and other cutting-edge technology and finance ventures. He and his wife Lyna Lam, whose two sisters and several other family members attended SF State, have been stalwart supporters of the University since 2001. In April 2019, SF State announced the donation of a historic $25 million gift from Larsen, Lam and the Rippleworks Foundation to the College of Business, establishing the Chris Larsen and Lyna Lam Funds for the College of Business. In honor of this longtime support, the California State University announced that SF State’s College of Business had been renamed the Lam Family College of Business.

Learn more about SF State’s Lam Family College of Business.

Alumna, veteran wedding planner brings equity lens to industry

Chanda Daniels (B.A., ’14) specializes in events celebrating the love of LGBTQ+ couples

No couple’s love story is the same, says alumna Chanda Daniels. And she’d know. She’s been in the wedding and event planning business for more than 25 years and founded two companies, A Monique Affair and Chanda Daniels Planning and Design. Both companies cater to diverse couples, so she’s constantly learning about the different ways people love and the different people they love. Her favorite part of her job is weaving these love stories through every detail of the wedding so that on their special day family and friends are immersed in that story.

Unfortunately, weddings aren’t all wine and roses. They can come with a lot of baggage, especially for LGBTQ+ and BIPOC couples. These couples can sometimes clash with an industry that doesn’t have a strong history of diversity and inclusion. Daniels (B.A., ’14) has made it her mission to ensure her clients’ celebrations are memorable for all the right reasons.

Just last year, one of her brides was looking at an expensive venue that didn’t have a history of hosting a lot of weddings for BIPOC couples. “They were giving this bride the hardest time. ... She called me in tears,” she said.

Fortunately, Daniels and her team stepped in and were able to diffuse the situation, and the woman’s wedding turned out beautifully.

 “That this venue had the nerve to discriminate against her or treat her in some [disrespectful] kind of way — it was so unreal,” Daniels said.

Daniels, who identifies as a Lesbian of color, specializes in planning weddings for LGBTQ+ couples, which comes with a unique set of considerations, she says. “When you go to a [wedding] creative, it feels as though you’re coming out to them again to see if they approve of you, and I didn’t want any of my couples to feel that way,” Daniels said. “That’s why I decided to be that person.”

Some of the LGBTQ+ couples she’s worked with have never kissed in front of their family, she says, so that’s often a topic they discuss. And then there are the couples whose parents don’t approve of their lifestyle.

“There have been so many times I have just cried with my clients. I get so connected to them because that’s a very personal thing that they may not have talked to anyone else about,” she said. “But here they are, on this most important day, wondering if the people who brought them into this world are going to come and celebrate them.”

As a wedding creative, Daniels has to wear many hats. Some days she’s a counselor, on others she’s a financial advisor. In many ways, she was destined for this kind of work. When she was younger her mother told her she was in control and always had a plan. “This is going to sound bad, but I was always telling people what to do,” she added.

The Oakland native started working at Andronico’s market and was promoted to a position in IT. Meanwhile, she started her event planning company A Monique Affair in 1999. She realized event planning was her passion and found a job with the East Bay Community Foundation operating its convention center. As she she grew as an event planner she eventually decided to devote herself full-time to her own thriving company.

College was not on the map until she began talking to her daughter Chloe about college. “I’d say, ‘Chloe, it’s time to start thinking about college. What’s your plan?’ and she was like, ‘Well, mom you didn’t go to college and everything is fine with you.’” That conversation led Daniels on a search for college programs tailored to working adults.

After completing work at a community college, Daniels transferred to SF State in the Hospitality and Tourism Management program. Even though she was older than her peers and well established in her career, the program was rewarding, she says.

She continues to give back to that program by mentoring students interested in event planning. Each year she speaks to classes and on panels about her field. “Half of my employees are from that mentorship program,” she said, including two of her most long-term employees.

She’s hoping that her efforts in and out of the field help continue diversifying the industry. “Don’t be fooled by what you see in the magazines,” she said. “There are some folks out there who are doing their thing, but they may not get the recognition, and they may not have a platform, but they are out there.”

More information about SF State’s Hospitality and Tourism Management program is available online.

SF State alum executive produces documentary on hoops legend Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf

Sarah Allen (B.A., ’99) focuses her journalism work on social justice in sports

Two decades before Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the National Anthem to protest police violence, another professional athlete faced severe consequences for refusing to salute the flag. Now, a San Francisco State University alumna has brought former National Basketball Association (NBA) player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s unique story — and the tantalizing style he played the game — to an international audience. 

Longtime journalist Sarah Allen (B.A., ’99) is an executive producer for “STAND,” the biographical documentary about Abdul-Rauf featuring extensive interviews with him and other basketball luminaries. It premiered on Showtime on Feb. 3.  

“I fell into it because I really was intrigued by that whole conversation around athletes and activism,” Allen said. “I’m not as interested in giving somebody’s stats on the field. That’s boring to me. Athletes have stories that go beyond that.” 

Born as Chris Jackson in 1969 in Mississippi, Abdul-Rauf exhibited a dazzling display of skills and athleticism at only 6 feet and 1 inch tall. He used his battle with Tourette syndrome as motivation. “It looked like I was watching God play basketball,” Shaquille O’Neal, a teammate of Abdul-Rauf at Louisiana State University, said in the documentary. Allen said: “Clearly, he was Steph Curry before Steph Curry.” 

Abdul-Rauf’s career was cut short, however, after he decided to sit on the bench during pregame performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner” due to the continued oppression of Black people in America. He was suspended and then exiled from the league, and later his home was burned down in an act of white supremacy. Now age 54, he has enjoyed a career resurgence, dominating players much younger than him in the half-court BIG3 basketball league with the same skills he has always had. 

“Mahmoud is just very layered,” Allen said. “When you see his story, he’s had a lot of trauma in his life. When you look at him, he doesn’t seem like he’s been through everything he’s been through. And that is what intrigued me. And again, he’s a conduit for all these messages that are in the film and that I feel we should continue talking about.”  

Allen met Abdul-Rauf at the 2017 National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) conference, where he won an award. At the time, he was long out of the national spotlight and his story had been largely forgotten. Allen approached him and convinced him to do an interview, his first one-on-one with anyone in years. Their rapport has since evolved into Allen writing numerous stories on Abdul-Rauf and then negotiating his licensing agreement with Showtime and the contract for his 2022 memoir through Kaepernick Publishing.  

Sarah Allen headshot

Allen’s SF State story 

Allen grew up in the Fillmore District in San Francisco. After high school at Sacred Heart Cathedral, she attended Clark Atlanta University for one year before returning to the Bay Area. 

“San Francisco State has one of the best broadcasting programs in the country, so it was a no-brainer for me,” she said.  

By Allen’s third semester, though, she found herself on academic probation. She credits fellow Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts student Tiffany Griffith (B.A., ’99) with helping turn her academic career around. 

“She and I became fast friends and we started taking classes together. I started getting motivated to go to class, be awake during class, make sure I do my homework,” Allen said. “I think it took me about a year and a half to get off academic probation. And in a year and a half, I ended up back on the Dean’s List.   

“Once I really took it seriously, the mentors that I had there, they really made sure I succeeded,” Allen added. “And I’m just so grateful I had that experience because it really prepared me for real life.” 

Learn more about the SF State Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts Department. 

Alumna lands Emmy as part of Disney writing team

Hanah Lee Cook (B.A., ’15) is a writer for ‘Muppet Babies’ and other Disney shows

Hanah Lee Cook (B.A., ’15) is a little young for an Emmy winner. In December, the 29-year-old Gator was part of the creative team that landed an award for Outstanding Writing for a Preschool Animated Program for the Disney Junior reboot “Muppet Babies.” But then again Cook had a big head start on success: She’s known she wanted to be a comedy writer since she was in the sixth grade.

“My plan was to Tina Fey my way into the business because it’s tough to break in as an actor,” said Cook (referencing the “30 Rock” actress’ show biz beginnings as a “Saturday Night Live” staff writer).

Cook grew up in sunny Santa Clarita, California, where academics and athletics were heavily emphasized in her home. Yet she stayed fixated on winning laughs rather than trophies.

“I knew I wouldn’t be happy unless I were doing something creative with my day-to-day,” said Cook. “When I applied to SF State, I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t go to this school and not do some form of performing art. … I’m here to make things and have a good time.”

When Cook arrived at San Francisco State in 2011, she already had an impressive resume underway: She had over a dozen theatre roles under her belt as an actor and had co-founded a sketch comedy troupe, all while in high school. During her sophomore year of college, Cook joined the SF State chapter of Delta Kappa Alpha, an arts-oriented, gender-inclusive fraternity. That led to more acting experience in Delta Kappa Alpha short films as well as her first full screenplay.

“It was about a girl with Asperger’s and her sister trying to have a conversation with her,” said Cook. “The whole time, the sister is trying to relate to her, and her sister is just staring at her cat and imagining if the cat has wings.”

Cook says that the script, like much of her writing, is influenced by her life experiences.

“It stemmed from growing up with a family member with Asperger’s,” said Cook. “It was difficult to engage with him. It meant a lot when he engaged and made eye contact with us.”

According to Cook, studying theatre and acting at SF State helped with her writing, specifically when she took multiple classes with Laura Wayth, assistant professor of Theatre & Dance.

“Laura Wayth, who teaches acting, was amazing,” said Cook. “I didn’t take a single screenwriting class. I learned how to write by doing the actor paperwork in the acting classes, where we identify what your character wants, what’s in their way and what they’re going to do to try to get it. That taught me how to write a story that’s not just a conversation about a difficult topic between two people.”

Wayth, who started teaching at SF State in 2013, recalls being immediately struck by Cook's creativity, wit and potential.

“She has a very analytical brain and an incredibly wry sense of humor, and those two things combined are stage dynamite that she’s channeled into her writing,” Wayth said.

Before graduating in 2015, Cook held multiple internships at small and large production companies as a production intern. She credits that experience with helping kickstart her career.

“I sometimes wish I had a fun summer break, but I would not be where I am if I hadn’t done that,” she said. “You really have to set your goals and be realistic about what you need to do.”

Upon graduation, she started as a production assistant for Warner Bros. Animation, later working for the company as an assistant production manager. She went on to hold positions at multiple animation companies, including Cartoon Network, as a freelance writer. In 2020, she landed what was supposed to be a six-month job as a script coordinator for Disney Television Animation. The supposedly temporary assignment never ended, however, and she eventually became a staff writer. Two and a half years later came the Emmy nomination and win.

“Just the nomination announcement and that my name was going to be on it was insane,” said Cook. “I totally felt like a fraud because I wasn’t a full-time staff member at the time. But we broke every story together. All of us are in all those episodes, and hearing that ‘Muppet Babies’ won, I think we all blacked out for a second.”

Turning her passion for writing into a career in animation isn’t just a childhood dream come true for Cook. She’s also following in the footsteps of her father, who works for Titmouse Animation Studios, the company behind “Big Mouth,” “Star Trek: Lower Decks,” the recent “Beavis and Butt-Head” reboot and other animated shows.

“I grew up in a big animation-oriented household, so it was always around,” said Cook.  

Now, as a writer working on a variety of Disney shows, Cook continues to use her own childhood experiences as inspiration for her work. Her inability to whistle inspired an episode she wrote for “Mickey Mouse Funhouse,” for instance.

“I did an episode where Daisy Duck can’t whistle,” said Cook. “She doesn’t know how, so they get Hercules’ muses to teach her. In the end, she can’t do it, but she learns she can do other things, and that’s OK.”

Including those kinds of inspiring messages in her scripts is important to Cook. She might be writing for children, but that doesn’t mean she avoids difficult topics.

“I’ll write about more personal things like little microaggressions I experienced as a kid,” said Cook. “Some people say it’s not relatable because not everyone experiences those things. I’ll say, ‘You’re right — this is for all the other kids who may be doing those things and not realizing their negative impact.’”

So though her day job allows her to fulfill the very goals she brought with her to SF State — making things and having a good time — she’s also found a way to bring extra meaning to the comedy she creates.

“What little effect I can have, what little thing I can do, I’m going to try to do it,” said Cook. “Luckily, Disney has been letting me.”

Learn more about SF State’s College of Liberal & Creative Arts.

Family ties: how an SF State education changed everything for two sisters

Despite a childhood rocked by trauma, Theresa Gamboa (B.A., ’21) and her twin sister Alexandria Singh (B.A., ’22) are facing the future with optimism, determination and forgiveness

When she was 15 years old, Theresa Gamboa made a phone call that changed her life. It was a change for the better ... eventually. But it also led to consequences and chaos she had to deal with for years.

Gamboa’s call was to the police. She was reporting her father — a meth addict and gang member — for abuse.

Gamboa ended up in the foster care system. Her father ended up in prison.

It’s a story most people might be anxious to put behind them. But Gamboa — who graduated from SF State in 2021 with a degree in Business Administration — isn’t most people. She’s committed to telling her story again and again, even hiring a speech coach to help her develop it into a TEDx talk.

“I’m not going to let any of my pain go to waste,” she says. “I’m going to use my business skills and what I’ve been through to make an impact. That’s my calling now.”

That doesn’t mean telling her story is easy. Recalling the details can be difficult.

“It goes blank due to all the trauma,” she says.

But she does remember the optimism she felt walking onto the campus of San Jose City College at the age of 16. Despite the disarray of her life — bouncing from one foster home to another after turning in her father — she’d managed to graduate early from high school. She recalls thinking of education as her “golden ticket out,” and she was anxious to use it.

“There were so many issues in high school. I just wanted to be somewhere where people were there because they wanted to be, not because they were forced to with a chip on their shoulder, ready to fight,” she says. “I didn’t want any of that. I was already experiencing that at home.”

SF State and Some Pivotal Help

Unfortunately, though the desire to get an education was there, the skills weren’t. Neither was the support she needed.

“There was nothing good going for me,” she says. “I just had negative news after negative news — moving from foster home to foster home, and I couldn’t see my parents legally.”

Things turned around for Gamboa when she began getting academic and life skills support from Pivotal, a San Jose-based nonprofit that serves youth in the foster care system. Though Gamboa aged out of the system at 18, Pivotal continued to provide support — including help applying to SF State when Gamboa realized she wasn’t connecting to the nursing classes she’d been taking at San Jose City College.

“What drew me to San Francisco State was the business program,” says Gamboa, who also received scholarship support from Pivotal for her switch to SF State. “I fell in love with business. It ignited a real passion. … My motivation went from a five to a 10.”

Gamboa particularly responded to the teaching of Smita Trivedi, an associate professor in the Lam Family College of Business whose specialties include sustainable business practices and female entrepreneurs from impoverished backgrounds.

“I’m passionate about helping other people. So it’s really important to me [for business] to make a benefit to me and the person on the other side,” Gamboa says. “She showed me the importance of doing business the right way.”

After graduating, Gamboa landed a job as a marketing coordinator at Afero, a Silicon Valley tech company that develops internet connection software for clients like Home Depot. Gamboa says she loves it.

“I am pumped,” she says. “I literally couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

She shares that happy ending with others through the talks she regularly gives on behalf of Pivotal. Reliving her childhood isn’t exactly fun, but she’s determined to show other foster youth they can change their lives. She can already point to one who followed in her footsteps: her twin sister, Alexandria Singh.

Double Trouble

Singh (who got married and took her husband’s last name last year) graduated from SF State with a B.A. in Criminal Justice in December. Singh says she and her sister were inseparable as children.

“We were just double trouble. Always together,” she says.

That changed dramatically when Gamboa called the police on their father. For a time, Singh remained in their parents’ household after Gamboa was removed.

“I was stuck at the house alone with a lot of abuse and neglect,” Singh remembers. “I was like, ‘Hey! Call the cops on me! I don’t want to be here!’ So I eventually made that happen.”

Years later, Singh followed in her sister’s footsteps once again — on the path to SF State. Though Singh finished her degree from Miami, where her doctor husband began his residency last year, she and Gamboa have begun another important journey together — the one to forgiveness. Both sisters have been in contact with their parents and say they bear them no ill will.

“When we tell people our story, people tend to hate our parents,” Singh says. “We don’t want that at all. Me and my sister, we don’t want to harvest bitterness. That’s like a stone that drags you down. We genuinely love our parents, and we forgive them.”

Alumni share their stories in Fall/Winter SF State Magazine

The new issue also spotlights campus art and offers a fun new feature: an SF State-themed puzzle

Inspiring alumni stories take center stage in the Fall/Winter 2022 SF State Magazine, now available online.

The issue’s cover subject, Michael J. Payton (B.A., ’15), reveals how a video he posted to YouTube landed him his dream job: directing the recent Black Entertainment Television documentary “The Murder Inc Story.” Biomedical scientist Chinomnso Okorie (B.S., ’17; M.S., ’19) discusses how she’s using community-engaged research to track and fight health disparities in the Bayview. Señor Sisig co-founder Evan Kidera (B.A., ’04; MBA, ’14) delves into the backstory behind his growing Filipino food empire. And Juan Acosta (B.A., ’19) traces his journey from teenager campaigning for a local pride proclamation to nationally recognized activist walking the halls of the White House.

The issue also includes a photo tour of cool campus art and a Q&A with new University Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Amy Sueyoshi. As always, the Class Notes section is loaded with alumni updates. And there’s a first for the magazine — an SF State-themed crossword puzzle and contest. Get all the details on the SF State Magazine website.

The magazine site also features an online exclusive: Behind the Scenes, a candid look at the creation of the new issue. Getting just the right shot for a magazine’s cover is rarely easy, but when you’ve got a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer on the job you can be confident that stunning pictures are on the way.

Have any SF State Magazine feedback or suggestions for future stories? Send an email to

Alumna’s online network inspires thousands of Latina students

Christina V. Rodriguez (left) and her sister both completed graduate school at the same college.

Influencer’s hashtag #LatinasWithMasters offers community to those earning degrees

Alumna Christina V. Rodriguez (B.A.,’12) is an influencer with a purpose — make higher education equitable for Latinx students. She’s turned her mission into a trending hashtag on social media — #LatinasWithMasters — which sprouted an online community that’s grown to more than 14,000. Since launching in July 2020, Latinas with Masters expanded from an Instagram handle to podcasts about diversity and inclusion, speaking engagements and consultant work on the same topic, resources for students, online workshops, an entire online community and much more.

The mother of two founded the company after feeling like an outsider in her MBA program at a small private university. She was the only Latina student in her cohort, an experience that was isolating and sometimes painful. It wasn’t that her instructors were prejudiced. In fact, they were great, she says. They just didn’t acknowledge the lack of diversity in the classroom. Instead, the focus of her classes was on business policies and procedures. To not acknowledge race or ethnicity felt like something was missing from the curriculum, she says.

“I am a Latina in business and that does affect the way that I show up to work and the way that I show up for my employees and the way I manage a business, you know,” she said.

The negative feelings from her MBA program may have been magnified because of her undergraduate experience at San Francisco State University, she adds. “San Francisco State is very diverse. I graduated in Latino Studies, so my entire curriculum was based on either my experience or Latino culture,” she said. Many of her classmates and faculty looked like her and had similar stories — children of immigrants who were the first in their families to attend college.

Rodriguez later learned the name for what she felt throughout the MBA program: imposter syndrome — that feeling of personal incompetence despite having the right experience and academic training. In 2020, she began a doctorate program in Educational Leadership at Mills College, which led her to reflect on her experience in business school. That’s when she got the idea for Latinas with Masters. She launched the Instagram page with the hope that she’d inspire other women of color to pursue advanced degrees and that she’d provide a community if they’re not finding one in their programs.

“[The thinking was] I know how to get a master’s degree and I identify as Latina, so let me create this online community where I share my experience getting into graduate school and share my experience while in graduate school,” she said.

Scrolling through her Instagram page, her posts are a mixture of the practical and the personal. It’s tips on applying to graduate school and financial aid and finding a support network while in graduate school. She also delves into more sensitive topics, such as the microaggressions women of color experience, negotiating salaries and being a mother in academia. “There are a lot of intersectionalities we as women of color experience that aren’t talked about inside of the classroom,” she adds.

Basically, Latinas with Masters is a resource for women of color navigating spaces that weren’t designed for them, Rodriguez says. And the members of the Latinas with Masters community are navigating a lot of different professional spaces.

“Some are speech pathologists, some work in health care, some are lawyers, and they’re like, ‘There’s a gap in this literature, here’s the gap in this industry’ and ‘I want to change that’ and ‘I want to create more awareness,’” Rodriguez said. “So Latinas with Masters is also the platform to create awareness of what needs to be changed in our community and in the higher education system.”

At the start of her doctorate program at Mills College, Rodriguez thought she’d become a professor. But after launching her company she’s more interested in how it can transform academia and other spaces to be more equitable. Maybe that means eliminating graduate school application fees or the GRE and GMAT as admission requirements — just a few examples of systemic changes she hopes institutions will embrace.

“We have to figure out what a shared vision of equity is,” she said, “so we can do the work together.”

Gator is city’s premier ghosthunter

Magician Christian Cagigal (B.A., ’02) owns and operates the San Francisco Ghost Hunt Walking Tour

If there’s something strange in your neighborhood, as the old song goes, who you gonna call? Well, if your neighborhood’s in San Francisco, forget the Ghostbusters. Call Christian Cagigal (B.A., ’02) — so he can add your block to the San Francisco Ghost Hunt Walking Tour.

Cagigal helped launch the ghost tour — San Francisco’s first — in 1998 while still a Theatre Arts student at San Francisco State University. Cagigal was brought in as co-director and creative consultant by his friend Jim Fassbinder, who created the tour and ran it for 17 years. When Fassbinder retired in 2015, he sold the tour to Cagigal.

Now Cagigal’s in the middle of the tour’s busiest time of the year, taking dozens of amateur ghosthunters onto the streets of San Francisco six nights a week throughout October. (The tour is available other months, as well, but the schedule isn’t as regular, with Cagigal — a theatre consultant and magician — splitting his time between San Francisco and New York.)

Though he’s more of a skeptic than a true believer when it comes to the spirit realm, Cagigal says he’s always been fascinated by the supernatural.

“It’s funny, because I hated horror films as a kid, but I loved stories of haunted places,” he said. “I even wanted to be a paranormal scientist as a kid. I love experiencing the feeling of mystery and the unknown whether in life or art.”

So far, the experiences in his life haven’t included an actual close encounter with a ghost. But if he does eventually bump into the undead, he thinks he knows when it’ll happen: in the middle of a tour.

“On the tour weird things have happened to me,” he said. “Which makes me wonder if it’s me or the guests that attracts the activity.”  

Until the night comes when he finally gets to bust his own ghost, the highlight of the tour for Cagigal will be visits to the Hotel Majestic on Sutter Street. The longest continuously running hotel in the city, the Majestic was built in 1902 and survived the earthquake of 1906. Now it’s the guests who have to survive the occasional terrifying shake.

“For well over 100 years guests and staff of the hotel have claimed that ‘Lady Lisa’ haunts the floor, especially room 407,” he said. “She likes to shake people awake at night, appear as reflections in glass cabinets, or make lights swing.”