May 13, 2016Vol. 46, Issue 6

Bridging Gaps

Ashkaan Daneshi strives to create unity through conversation and service

In three short years at Chico State, graduating senior Ashkaan Daneshi started a leadership club for Middle Eastern students, donated a prestigious scholarship to aid Syrian refugees, and traveled to the White House at the invitation of Michelle Obama. None of it would have been possible, he said, without his decision to enroll at Chico State.

“Looking back, it was one of the best decisions of my life,” he said.

Born in Texas and raised in Iran, Daneshi transferred to Chico State in 2012 as an international economics major, later adding project management as a second major and Middle Eastern studies as a minor.

In his first year on campus, he rushed a fraternity but felt like an outsider. Professionally, he was on the same page as the other pledges, but preconceived ideas about culture and ethnicity placed them miles apart.

So he founded his own organization: Creativity and Adaptive Leadership in the Middle East and North Africa (CALMENA). The club’s mission is “to celebrate diversity and build bridges within the Middle East in order to cultivate leadership, literacy, and scholarship.”

“We believe that so many issues that exist within the Middle East are between countries there,” Daneshi explained. “If we want to solve many of those problems at their roots, we have to start a dialogue with each other before expecting the US and other countries to help us out.”

The club is comprised of Iranians, Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis, and even some white American and Mexican American students. Daneshi says the group rarely talks about politics or religion, and instead practices leadership skills, studies together, and, for three consecutive years, has planned and hosted the Middle Eastern Studies Symposium in collaboration with the College of Humanities and Fine Arts.

Working on these things has created bonding, he said.

“It’s such a diverse group, and Iranians and Arabs are not usually friendly to each other in the Middle East,” he said. “Now we’re trying to work together and bridge that gap. Even going through the exercise [of creating a mission statement] has created a really big bond, and we’re realizing, ‘Hey, we have so much more in common than we thought.’”

The group has also found unity through service. Last fall, in the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe, Daneshi formed the campus’ first UNICEF initiative, powered primarily by CALMENA members.

Universities don’t tell you what to do or what not to do—they provide a free space for you to express yourself and get engaged.

The aim is simple and apolitical: provide women and children refugees with clean, fresh water. Daneshi contributed the entirety of his $3,000 Rawlins Merit Award to the group’s cause in hopes of reaching its $10,000 goal, which would be matched by UNICEF, by May 30.

“I know so many people are working on what to do with the refugees, and all of us have different perspectives and ideas,” he said. “We don’t want to get into any arguments. We know these people are affected—we can see that. We just want to see how we can best meet their needs.”

To raise funds, CALMENA members have sold Middle Eastern handicrafts on campus and organized a self-defense class through University Advisory Board Chair Farshad Azad’s martial arts studio in Chico. As of May 8, they’d surpassed their $10,000 goal and were continuing their fundraising with a GoFundMe campaign.

In his final weeks at Chico State, Daneshi has served as an intern for US Representative Mike Honda, who has demonstrated support for Middle Easterners. And in April, he was among about 25 Iranian Americans invited by First Lady Michelle Obama to participate in a celebration of the Persian New Year at the White House.  

His primary focus, though, is starting an import/export business. With Silicon Valley office space secured and a business strategy in the works, he plans to export medical supplies from California to Middle Eastern countries and import agricultural products like dates from Saudi Arabia to the United States.

Central to his business plan is hiring CALMENA members after they graduate, both to power his company and, hopefully, provide a pathway to their permanency here.

“I’m trying to provide an opportunity for Saudi students here to team up with me, make money, and if they can stay, get their visas—because we all benefit,” he explained. 

It is this talent and passion for finding common ground between seemingly polarized groups that sets him apart from his peers and uniquely equips him for successful business and social experiences.     

“I think business is a good dialogue opener because everyone loves money,” he said. “You’re making money, but you have another agenda of bridging cultural divides.

“I’m a social entrepreneur. I love that so much more than the word ‘entrepreneurship’ in general. That’s why I jumped into CALMENA, it gave me a definition of what I wanted to do.”

Reflecting on his three years in Chico, Daneshi credits challenging and caring professors like Sean Morgan and Najm Yousefi, as well as Azad, for supporting him in his efforts to improve political and cultural understanding and business acumen.

“Universities don’t tell you what to do or what not to do—they provide a free space for you to express yourself and get engaged,” he said. “And if you’re passionate about wanting to make change and push a movement forward, if you ask for help, they will help you out and provide you resources. And Chico State provided that for me.”

Sarah Langford can be reached at sglangford@csuchico.edu.

Photo of Chico State grads

126th Commencement

Four days of commencement ceremonies begin Wednesday, May 18. Search #Chico2016 on social media for a live chronicle of events.  See schedule.

Senior Sendoff

A Super Sendoff

The Alumni Association honored the Class of 2016 with a BBQ and fun activities to wish them a fond farewell. Watch Video.

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