Called to Serve
Damario Sims is probably the closest to a student celebrity that you’ll find on the Chico State campus. The charismatic Wildcat basketball star has left an indelible mark on Chico State athletics history and in the memories of those who have followed his performances in CCAA and NCAA tournaments over the past four years.
But beyond the buzzer-beating shots and underneath his signature shoulder-length dreadlocks is perhaps the most defining aspect of Sims’ character: the obligation he feels to be a role model not only on the court but also on campus, in the community, and especially for young people from his hometown of West Oakland.
“I feel like when you are fortunate enough to be blessed with a talent, your obligation to your surroundings and your community is more than that field,” he says. “You have to reach out and touch people.”
Sims knows firsthand the impact that positive role models can have on a young person. During his freshman year at McClymonds High School, his mother died, and he also didn’t make the junior-varsity basketball team. His mother’s younger brother took him in and helped him make it through that hard time. "I was ready to give up on everything, you know, give up on life, but my uncle took me in, showed me the way, took care of me, and I would say saved my life," he said.
He made the high school basketball team the following year and found another mentor in his coach, Dwight Nathaniel. A UC Davis graduate, Nathaniel had also dealt with tragedy, losing several close family members in the span of two years.
“A lot of the people I grew up with are either dead or in jail or on their way to one of those two... I didn’t want to be one of those statistics."
Seeing his coach persevere and succeed gave the young Sims motivation. In Sims’ junior and senior years, the high school team made it to the state championships, losing the first time and winning the second. Coming off two successful seasons, Sims began to receive offers from several colleges, one of which was Chico State. After speaking to the Wildcat coaches, including head coach Greg Clink, Sims says Chico was an easy choice, and one he’s never regretted.
Despite the culture shock of coming from a predominately African American community to a predominately white one, Sims found his place in Chico among a family of players and coaches. When he first got here, he and his younger teammates saw older players getting 3.5-plus GPAs and decided that was a standard they would set for themselves.
Sims finished his time as a Wildcat ranked seventh in career points scored at 1,191. He also ranks seventh in assists with 272 and is the second player in school history to score more than 1,000 points and also notch more than 200 assists.
The criminal justice major is graduating with a 3.3 GPA and has jobs lined up in Oakland, as a case worker for a foster care agency and a basketball coach at his high school. Thoughts and discussions about playing basketball overseas were overridden by his desire to give back to the community he came from.
“I feel like if I go play three or four years in another country, it wouldn’t be a bad experience, it would be a great experience,” he said, “but I would be robbing the kids back in my high school of knowledge that maybe could save their life.
“A lot of the people I grew up with are either dead or in jail or on their way to one of those two, so I know how fortunate I am to be in this situation. I didn’t want to be one of those statistics. I wanted to come, and I wanted to excel and try to give West Oakland a good name. I feel accomplished.”
Few understand or embody the meaning of service work and leadership quite like graduating political science major Swan Toma.
Born in Iraq under the regime of Saddam Hussein, Toma and his family, along with others, faced the threat of persecution in 1997 related to his father’s work with Western countries. Evacuating as refugees to camps in Turkey and Guam, the family eventually immigrated to the United States through the sponsorship of an uncle in San Diego County when he was just 6.
These challenging early experiences have given birth to a deep-seated drive to give back; the 2013 recipient of the Glenn Kendall Public Service Award has engaged in a sleep-defying number of community activities, leadership roles, and volunteer posts in his four years at CSU, Chico. Serving as president this year of both the Golden Key International Honor Society and Pi Sigma Alpha, the political science honor society, Toma has volunteered numerous hours helping organize high-profile events, including renowned political theorist Michael Zuckert and Jason Ross, Emmy Award-winning writer for "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."
Toma also served as vice president of Sigma Chi in fall 2012, leading his chapter in more than 230 community service hours and coordinating a number of fundraising events, including a dinner that raised more than $6,000 for the Huntsman Cancer Institute. He also led the fraternity’s charge to restore a picnic site in Bidwell Park in partnership with the City of Chico.
His public service extends beyond campus. As a paralegal intern at the Community Legal Information Center (CLIC), Toma worked with the Public Benefits Advocacy Program, helping community members in need acquire public assistance and other services. He recently completed an internship at the Chico Police Department researching solutions to alcohol problems in Chico and serving as a student representative for the department.
Toma has also served as a volunteer with Community Action Volunteers in Education (CAVE), Students Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE), participated in Cross-Cultural Leadership Center events, and worked as a research assistant for political science professor Alan Gibson, who Swan calls "a great mentor and an extraordinary, positive influence."
Pointing to his experiences as a child, Toma sees civic engagement and public service as an antidote to the threat of state violence and human injustice.
“I was born into a government that murdered its own people, shackled them from improving their well being, and demanded from them the unquestioning acceptance of their regime,” he wrote in a note to Gibson. “I have learned not to accept the world as it is. I want to work toward a world where families are united, people understand the importance of values, and individuals everywhere constantly work to improve our problems in a civil manner.”
Following graduation, Toma plans to apply for a Fulbright or Boren fellowship and pursue a graduate degree. He hopes to either serve in a public policy context promoting diplomacy between nations or someday work in Congress.
– Kacey Gardner and Sarah Langford, Public Affairs and Publications