Gator Tales

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. 

 

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 sfsumag@sfsu.edu.

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.”

SF State student joins campaign to ban caste discrimination, receives top CSU award

CSU grants Manmit Singh 2022 Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement for commitment to community building

San Francisco State University student Manmit Singh believes people should use their position of power to advocate for marginalized communities. One of Singh’s proudest accomplishments embodies exactly that, which led to a major change within the California State University (CSU) system.

Earlier this year, the CSU became the first university system nationwide to add caste to its anti-discrimination policy. A big reason why this policy change happened is because Singh and their peers advocated for it.

“This change is acknowledging caste and coming to terms with it, which is step one of dismantling it,” said Singh, who is pursuing a master’s degree in Ethnic Studies at SF State. “With these protections now being promised, it creates the space for people to come forward to begin conversations on how we can transform our institutions.”

Singh, who comes from an upper caste background, worked with Dalit (the most socially and economically oppressed in South Asia’s caste system) feminist leadership to organize a campaign for this policy change. Because of their involvement, along with their academic achievements and strong commitment to community building, Singh is one of the recipients to receive the CSU 2022 Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement, earning them a $7,000 scholarship.

Singh says this scholarship will help them continue community organizing work and eventually pursue a Ph.D. in ethnic studies, American studies or feminist studies. “I hope to continue building communal spaces of love, care, healing and dreaming,” they added.

The CSU Trustees’ Award is the university’s highest recognition of student achievement. Each award provides a donor-funded scholarship to students who demonstrate superior academic performance, personal accomplishments, community service and inspirational goals for the future. The awardees have demonstrated a deep commitment to making a positive impact on their generation, as well as those who come after them.

“These 23 remarkable scholars wonderfully exemplify the ideals of the California State University,” said CSU Chancellor Jolene Koester. “Their inspirational stories are connected by a common thread of intelligence, perseverance, resilience and the transformative power of higher education. Our communities, state and nation — indeed, our world — will long reap the benefits of their academic, professional and personal achievement.”

Alum who grew up undocumented returns to the Tenderloin with an M.D.

Edgar Velazquez says SF State helped him become a physician who could serve his community

“I am proof mentoring works,” says Edgar Velazquez (B.S., ’16). “Mentors helped me go from being a dishwasher with no shot at medicine to graduation.”

Velazquez didn’t just earn another degree. He has a new title — Dr. Velazquez — that will allow him to fulfill a lifelong dream.

Velazquez graduated from University of California, Davis medical school June 2022. But it was at San Francisco State University that he first received the mentoring that transformed his life.

Velazquez immigrated from Mexico at the age of 14 and grew up as an undocumented immigrant in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. With the help of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which helped protect him from deportation and allowed him to get a work permit, Velazquez is now coming back to San Francisco for the next step of his career. With his fresh medical degree in hand, he’ll start a residency at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), where he’ll be splitting his time between UCSF Moffitt, Zuckerberg General Hospital and Richard H. Fine’s People’s Clinic. It’s a dream that’s been nearly 15 years in the making.

Why become a doctor? Because he remembers being an undocumented high schooler who couldn’t get timely physicals to play soccer. When his mom had breast cancer, she was more concerned about whether or not she could afford treatment.

“And I think that should not be in any patients’ minds, particularly for a correct cancer diagnosis. You should not have to worry about your kid not being able to get a physical for soccer because you can’t afford it,” he said.

Velazquez always had an affinity for STEM, he explains. In high school, he did a summer research internship at UCSF. He’d see people sleeping outside of his building as he rode the bus from the Tenderloin to UCSF. Although he loved working with cells in the lab, the disconnect between the research and people in his community bothered him. This sparked the passion to tackle health disparities through science that still drives him today.

Velazquez enrolled in SF State in 2009 (before DACA was established). Although he had various acceptance offers and scholarships, most did not cover his needs. Being undocumented, he had limited options and had to work washing dishes to afford school.

“I’m the first one in my family to graduate from college and also the first doctor in the family,” Velazquez said. “It was daunting but I had a lot of help.”

He came to SF State because his high school had a connection to the University’s Step to College Program and he also participated in the Metro College Success Program. Both programs helped Velazquez navigate course enrollment, career resources, tutoring and more. College was anything but smooth sailing, however: He started off in remedial English and repeatedly failed entry-level chemistry. After speaking to an advisor who did not fully understand the challenges of being undocumented, he independently began looking for a Latino Ph.D. at SF State. The search led him to SF State Professor of Biology Leticia Márquez-Magaña, someone he still considers a mentor.

“It felt so great to find a faculty member that understands where you come from, what you’ve been through, what you’re going through and where you want to go,” he explained.  He didn’t join her lab at this time but kept in touch with her throughout the years, sharing his academic and career goals.

Then Velazquez took off a year from school. He ran out of money and with his mother’s breast cancer to contend with, he decided it was best for him to step away from his studies. His return to SF State coincided with the implementation of DACA, opening up more options. A professor invited him to be an undergraduate student instructor in Science Supplemental Instruction (SI), but since it was only a part-time gig, he continued to wash dishes at night.

After graduation, Velazquez joined Márquez-Magaña’s lab as it was transitioning to do more health disparities research — exactly the type of work he was itching to do. He did a post-baccalaureate with SF BUILD, a program Márquez-Magaña was leading. He participated in a community-based project called PASITO that assessed the impact of exercise and nature on stress management on underrepresented communities.

As a physician and as a researcher, Velazquez emphasized that community-based participatory research leads to better science. The community is involved in every stage of the project: from asking the questions, experimental design and data analysis.

“It leads to better and more rigorous research because [community members] are the experts on their community. They bring their insights and their lived experiences into research questions that are relevant to their everyday lives,” he added.

His goal is to set up a clinic in the Tenderloin where he’s a primary care physician and researcher. He also wants to develop a group that incorporates community-based participatory research, trains and educates students, tackles health disparities and more. Thinking about all that he wants to do, he muses that it’s time he gives his old mentor a call. “She always gives me the right answer,” he joked. But he notes that he is where he is because of Márquez-Magaña and all of his mentors.

“I mean, I’m obviously the vessel for the story, but there’s so many other students that I know that have also been successful because of those [SF State] programs. They were a huge part of who I am now, where I am now,” he said.

Learn more about the programs Dr. Velazquez mentioned in his interview: Step to College ProgramMetro College Success ProgramScience Supplemental Instruction (SI) and SF BUILD.

Service-minded businesswoman, biotech leader named 2022 Alumni of the Year

Innovators in comedy, wine and sustainable business are the 2022 Alumni Hall of Fame inductees

For 28 years, San Francisco State University has recognized outstanding alumni for their countless contributions to Bay Area life and beyond. This year’s Alumni Hall of Fame inductees are leaders in their fields and examples of the varied paths that can be taken with a San Francisco State degree. SF State President Lynn Mahoney and the University community will honor the new inductees at a celebration and dinner Thursday, Oct. 13, at Chase Center in San Francisco. Rock journalist and author Ben Fong-Torres (B.A., ’66) will be the emcee for the night.

“When I look at this year’s inductees, I see pioneers. They’re blazing trails in medicine, public service, comedy, business, sustainability and wine,” said Associate Vice President of Alumni Relations and University Engagement Nicole Lange. “What connects our inductees is SF State. The University clearly played an integral role on their path toward success.”

Alumni of the Year

Kimberly K. Brandon
B.A., ’84, Psychology

Kimberly K. Brandon has led a flourishing career in the financial services industry along with extensive engagement in public service. She was senior vice president with the Brandon Group at Morgan Stanley, where she oversaw a portfolio of assets of high net worth individuals, foundations, endowments and public entities. She’s held similar positions at Bank of America and Wells Fargo. She’s the first African American woman to serve as a commissioner for the Port of San Francisco, a position she’s held since being appointed by Mayor Willie Brown in 1997, and now serves as its president. Brandon was the former board chair for the Museum of the African Diaspora, is board chair of San Francisco Grants for the Arts Advisory Panel, Metta Fund and is a board member of PACT, Inc., Golden Gate University and the SF State Foundation, where she concluded a term as the University first African American chair.

Michael S. Richman
M.S., ’93, Business Administration

Michael S. Richman is co-founder, president and CEO of NextCure, a biopharmaceutical company founded in 2015 committed to discovering and developing immune medicines to treat cancer and other immune-related diseases. Richman has worked in the biopharmaceutical sector since 1985, holding senior leadership positions at companies such as Amplimmune, MacroGenics, MedImmune and Chiron (now Novartis). Richman served as president and CEO of Amplimmune when it was acquired by AstraZeneca in 2013. He holds a B.S. in Genetics and Molecular Biology from UC Davis. He lives with his wife Kathleen H. Richman in Maryland.

Hall of Fame Inductees

Dalia Ceja
B.A., ’08, Marketing and Communications
Dalia Ceja followed her family into the wine business and is now the sales and marketing director at Ceja Vineyards, one of the few Latino-owned wineries in the Napa Valley. After earning a degree from SF State, she helped transform her family’s winery into an internationally recognized brand. In 2011, she was named Woman of the Year by the Napa Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. In 2020, she received The North Bay Business Journal’s Latino Business Leadership Award. She serves on the board of NG: The Next Generation in Wine and participated in the Napa Valley Vintner’s Leadership Program. She holds an eMBA with a focus in wine business from Sonoma State University.

Gulshan Kumar
B.S., ’16, Business Administration

Gulshan Kumar is partner and vice president of sales of Fremont-based PATH (formerly PathWater), a producer of responsibly and locally sourced purified water in refillable aluminum water bottles. He hopes the company’s product will help phase out single-use plastic water bottles. PATH bottles are sold at 35,000 retailers across the country, including Sprouts, Safeway and San Francisco International Airport. The company also has partnerships with Intuit, Dropbox, Facebook, Tesla, Orange Theory and SF State.

SF Sketchfest founders and directors
David Owen, B.A., ’99, Drama; Cole Stratton, B.A., ’99, Drama; Janet Varney, Drama

David Owen, Cole Stratton and Janet Varney forged a friendship at SF State and began performing together in their comedy group Totally False People alongside Gabriel Diani (B.A., ’00). In 2001, the trio founded SF Sketchfest to showcase Bay Area comedy. Twenty years later, the festival has grown into a nationally recognized, monthlong festival that’s featured some of the biggest names in comedy, such as Gene Wilder, Carol Burnett, Robin Williams, Catherine O’Hara, Alan Arkin and more.

Individually, they have led prolific careers in entertainment. Owen has worked as a producer and curator for events and festivals including Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, Clusterfest, the Mill Valley Film Festival and much more. Stratton hosted the acclaimed “Pop My Culture Podcast,” has appeared in TV and film and, along with Varney, wrote and performed comedic downloadable comedic commentary to films for RiffTrax.com. Varney has starred in several TV shows, including “You’re the Worst,” “The Legend of Korra” and “Stan Against Evil.” She’s also a longtime host of the podcast “The JV Club” and continues to perform improvisational comedy with ThemePark Improv.

More information about tickets and our inductees is available online.