Mikela Lazari ’20 recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of her family’s immigration from Iran to the United States as Assyrian, religious refugees. Having lived in the Muslim country of Iran with her family, Mikela has many childhood memories of people pushing her to convert. She laughs now, as she recalls her “smart, sassy” responses to these suggestions, but the tension was undoubtedly a constant presence in her and her family’s life.
After Mikela and her family moved to the US, the overtones of religious conflict subsided, but new pressures developed in their place. “My family wanted me to get a good education,” Mikela explains, “but as immigrants, it was hard to even figure out how to get into a US institution, let alone how to pay for it.”
As a high school senior, Mikela applied to and was accepted at several colleges, but ultimately turned down all of her admissions offers. “Because of my family’s finances and their general discomfort with my moving away, I ended up staying at home and attending De Anza College and West Valley College,” she says.
Though some might view this decision as a setback, Mikela threw herself into her community college career and took advantage of every opportunity she could find. She was voted President of the Associated Students of West Valley College (ASWVC) as well as student trustee of the ASWVC, and became an intern to the college president. During her tenure, Mikela reallocated the ASWVC budget, filled all vacant positions within the cabinet, and increased the school’s number of student senators from three to thirty-five. On top of her work with the ASWVC, she also founded and became the president of the school’s Persian Student Association and received the Trustee Award, for her commitment to community service, activity, and improvement.
Two years later, Mikela channeled this energy and motivation toward transferring to Cal, despite the continued uncertainty of her finances. Her family continued to emphasize the importance of receiving a good education, so Mikela took on the responsibility of figuring out the finances for her Berkeley tuition—which meant taking on loans and seeking out scholarship opportunities, including the Cal Alumni Association’s Leadership Award.
“Taking on loans is such a crippling feeling,” Mikela admits. “It’s a dark reality that no one tells you or talks about. Receiving this scholarship was such a huge relief because even though I still need to take out loans, having the extra financial support helps. It basically means I have the money to pay off the interest of my loan, as I’m starting my career in international law after Berkeley and law school.”
She adds, “Because The Leadership Award is also specifically given to leaders, receiving it made me feel like my work was recognized, like: ‘Yes, I am a leader.’”
“When I have other people telling me that I have leadership qualities, it makes me feel like I’ve made actual progress. It truly took a world of sacrifice to get me where I am now; with the support of Cal alumni, I feel like I have even more support to keep working toward the future.”
“So often, people don’t realize they’re leaders, or they struggle to define what their leadership looks like, because they’re just doing what they think they ought or need to do at the time.”
Mikela received the Cal Googler Award, a Leadership Award endowment funded by UC Berkeley graduates who are current employees at Google. Throughout her application and interview process, she remembers the awe of meeting and connecting with alumni at Google. “I didn’t realize for a while that I had received the Cal Googler Award, so when I finally found out, I called my dad to tell him over the phone,” she recounts. “I remember he replied, ‘I’m proud of you,’ and I was so excited.”
At Cal, Mikela has already begun to pave a path similar to the one she paved in community college. She works in the Office of the President at the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) and is co-chair of the Cal Alumni Association’s student outreach committee for the Berkeley Career Network.
Even with these accomplishments under her belt, Mikela confesses to feeling uncertain about her future—in particular, how she can continue to be a leader on the Cal campus—and is grateful for the significance of having Cal alumni recognize her, her work, and her progress. “So often, people don’t realize they’re leaders, or they struggle to define what their leadership looks like, because they’re just doing what they think they ought or need to do at the time. Now, I have Cal alumni constantly reminding me that I am still a leader and that I am on the right path.”