The Heights

Updated: September 12, 2016


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Dahlia Salem is first woman of color to lead statewide student organization

At age 19, Foothill College student Dahlia Salem is the first woman of color to be elected president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges (SSCCC), the organization that represents the 2.1 million students at all community colleges. Rather than attend UC Santa Barbara or UC Irvine as a freshman, the computer science major chose to complete her first two years of college at Foothill, knowing she’d receive an excellent education and save a significant amount of money.

“I knew I’d get a high-quality education without the steep price tag,” she says. “I also knew that by attending Foothill, I’d have time to discover what I’m passionate about.” A resident of Mountain View who works as an online math tutor for a Silicon Valley start-up, Salem quickly discovered that her passion is advocating for fellow students.

Salem’s interest in politics and advocacy stems from her experience living as a teenager in Egypt during a period of bloody conflict and government upheaval. “I was heavily involved in activist efforts during Egypt’s revolution in 2011,” she says. “Although I was just 14 years old at the time, I knew it was a critical moment to stand against corruption, lack of democracy and lack of basic human rights in Egypt.”

When two of her friends were killed during the country’s military coup, and she was personally endangered, Salem says her young life was forever changed. “I vowed I’d never get involved in politics again and moved to the U.S. to continue my education,” she says. “I attended Palo Alto High School and maintained a very quiet profile. But once I began classes at Foothill in 2014, I discovered that there was a safe and encouraging avenue to be involved in advocacy. It's called student government. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to be involved, so I joined the Associated Students of Foothill College.”

Her experience as a member of Foothill’s student government helped Salem develop leadership and collaboration skills, and gave her the confidence to become involved in statewide student government through the SSCCC.

“I think the most compelling reason to be involved in student government is the ability to give a voice to the voiceless,” she says. “As a student government representative, I was in an extremely privileged position of visibility, and through that platform, women like me–women of color–can especially thrive and bring the issues of their communities to the forefront.”

And bringing issues that affect community college students front and center is exactly what Salem has done. Under her leadership, SSCCC introduced three bills into the current legislative cycle, including AB 1995, AB 2766, AB 2822 which would permit students who are experiencing housing insecurity to use campus shower facilities; give students permanent representation on the California Student Aid Commission; and provide emergency aid to complete college for students who are in financial crisis, respectively.

“Student government is an excellent way to meet people who have similar interests,” she says. “I’ve met people of all ages, ethnicities and abilities, and I’ve built meaningful connections with people who share my passion for leadership and advocacy. But there’s more to student government than listing it as an elective on a university application. At the 113 California Community Colleges, we have the right–guaranteed in state statute–to be included in participatory governance. Students at CSU and UC campuses don’t have this guarantee. It is then our duty to seize this opportunity by developing strong student governments at the college and state levels to give a voice to our 2.1 million students.

“The bottom line is that it’s your education and it’s your money paying for it. You have a voice in holding those in leadership positions accountable for the quality of your education,” she says. “As a student government leader, my role is to ensure that our system of community college education works for all of us, not just a few of us.”

When she completes general education requirements at Foothill this June, Salem intends to transfer to either UC Davis or UC San Diego to pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer science with a minor in mathematics. While not yet certain of her career goals, she’s interested in a career in education, international diplomacy or work that combines technology and social justice.

By communicating a unified student perspective to relevant constituent groups and elected officials in all matters directly affecting California community college students, the SSCCC pursues policies that will improve student access, promotes student success, engages and empowers local student leaders, and enriches the collegiate experience for all California community college students.

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