Mariah Watson was a high school senior touring the UC Davis campus when her future came to her.
“From the moment I stepped on campus I knew this was it – this was where I was going to become the person I dreamed about being,” Watson said, someone “who would change the status quo and dig deeper for the meaning and truth in what I was being taught.”
She also knew something else: She was going to become involved in student government.
The tour guide mentioned the student government organization, Associated Students of UC Davis and said, ‘You know, there’s never been a black female president.’
“That kind of got me thinking,” said Watson.
Her father, with whom she was visiting colleges, forbid her from buying any campus gear until she’d made up her mind were she wanted to go. “By the time the tour was over, I’d made my decision. I bought the UC Davis sweatshirt.”
Watson succeeded this year in giving UC Davis its first black, female student body president, having become actively involved in student government and volunteerism shortly after arriving on campus.
She has used the post to advocate for the interests of the entire student population, while also shining a light on the needs of underrepresented minorities at the school.
“I realized that by advocating for historically marginalized and underrepresented populations, I was advocating and trying to improve the campus experience for everyone,” she said.
Forging her own path
As an ambitious teenager growing up in a rough-and-tumble Los Angeles neighborhood, Watson didn’t always fit in with the crowd.
“For a while, I had this fear that I didn’t want to be a nerd,” she said. Academics and going to college were not valued, she said, as much as other things, like social activity, participating in athletics and getting a job. “But I realized very soon that wasn’t me, and it wasn’t worth sacrificing the biggest part of me.”
She got a permit to transfer out of her low-performing high school to Culver City High, which offered richer academic options. “I knew right away my assigned school wasn’t going to give me the opportunities I needed to meet my educational objectives,” she said.
While Watson thrived in school and aimed for a top college, she saw others, including members of her own family, take a very different path. Her brother has been in and out of the justice system since he was 16, and still struggles to stay out of jail and hold a job.
Seeing the struggles that her peers were up against spurred Watson from early on to get involved with helping others.
Once at UC Davis, she became involved in student government, and helped develop a strategic plan to address issues of hunger and homelessness on campus.
She learned that the food pantry limited its outreach over concerns that they wouldn’t be able to meet the demand on campus. To expand the pantry’s capacity to serve students, she helped create a project called Swipe Out Hunger, which enabled students on campus meal plans to donate unused credits to the pantry.
The project generated thousands of dollars in donations, enabling the pantry to stock up on food and expand its services. The pantry has since tripled the number of students it serves.
Bringing people of diverse backgrounds together
Watson has also been passionate about working with university leadership to express the needs and concerns of minority students.
“For the longest time, no one wanted to talk about race. But it’s hard to have race-neutral policies in an environment that isn’t race neutral. It doesn’t make sense,” Watson said.
She said has seen a lot of positive change at Davis, including more outreach to high schools with large numbers of minority students letting them know about financial and practical resources that can help make college – and UC – a reality.
Earlier this year, Watson collaborated with campus leadership to host a White House Summit on Educational Excellence for African Americans. The event drew national leaders to the campus to for a daylong discussion about how to further educational success among African American students.
In addition to convening a national dialogue on the issue, Watson organized a series of meetings with the UC Office of the President to address the needs of black students and to look for ways to advance inclusiveness and diversity across the UC system.
Last month, UC President Janet Napolitano recognized Watson’s long list of achievements with the President’s Award for Outstanding Student Leadership.
“Just as much as we invest in research, we have to invest in recruitment and retention of minority students,” Watson said. “It’s not glamorous, it’s not going to be something that’s necessarily going to win coverage on the front page of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, but it’s something that matters.”
Finding her voice
Watson, who will be awarded a degree in international relations and philosophy this weekend, has already mapped out the next steps in a career focused on politics and public service.
The young grad is going back to Los Angeles to take the helm of LightWave Education, a community-based organization that promotes leadership, literacy and community engagement in minority communities.
She’s also participating in the Capital Fellows Program in Sacramento, where she will work with members of the California Senate.
Now, as she looks back on that first visit to campus, she realizes that her experience lived up to her early expectations. But it has also challenged her and pushed her to grow in ways she said she could not have foreseen.
“At the end of the day, I learned about myself things that I wouldn’t have learned anywhere else,” she said. Among these are how to set and push for realistic goals, and how to articulate her points while also listening to others.
“Coming to college four years ago I had no idea how to live my life unapologetically fearless. I was partly afraid of failure and unsure about my abilities to be who I wanted to be and be accepted for it.
Four years later and I wish I could hug that first-year student and say “don’t trip, Chocolate Chip, you’ve arrived,” she said.
"In Davis, I found my voice and confidence in what I believe in.”