This article is part of a series created for International Education Week 2020 by the Student Advocacy Committee of the International Student Ambassador Program. The program is an initiative of the Dashew Center for International Students and Scholars.
By Ashraf Beshay (UCLA 2018)
Political engagement started in high school
I come from a background of being politically active. When I was young, I wasn’t crazy political. But once I hit ninth and tenth grade and the 2011 revolution was happening in Egypt, I gave up this notion that we have to resign ourselves to political decision making and that we don’t have a voice in that process. You know how it is in Egypt: we don’t really go out and meet political officials or a political administration on a daily basis — it’s just not the same culture as in the U.S.
When the revolution happened, I was involved in some of the protests; not intensively, but I was out there. It was a very empowering time period in my own life because it involved shifting my perspective and seeing the collective power of ordinary people who come together and make a statement about what they believe in and what they want to see in their own government. I have my own voice; I don’t have to be the president of a university to utilize it.
My first year at UCLA, I applied for a student leadership position on a finance committee called the student fee advisory committee. That committee funds everything related to campus services and campus funds. When I was appointed to that committee, I saw how many resources were at the disposal of students to support fellow struggling Bruins on campus. Every year we were allocating something like 20 million dollars.
That was my initial experience of seeing that students have power on this campus, that they’re really given a voice in shaping their personal experiences and their lives. Then I met a couple of Egyptians who told me that they were in an Arab club, and it was fascinating because I hadn’t heard of something similar at UC San Diego, where I began my B.S.
I started to get involved and was going to some of our events, such as awareness-building events about the Syrian refugee crisis and so on.
As I started getting involved in the Undergraduate Students Association Council (USAC), someone who had the title of director of international relations reached out to me. He was from China and wanted to create a space for international students to come together, forge a stronger relationship with the Dashew Center and help them evolve to be a little more student friendly.
I met with him and a couple of other clubs in the Dashew boardroom. That was the first time I saw a bunch of ethnicities and backgrounds — you walk in and find all these people who are newcomers to the United States. They were still learning about things, just like I was, and they were leading within their communities, just like I was. And they had particular interests around college affordability that aligned with my own. That was the primary issue I wanted to tackle as a member of that coalition as it was being created: college affordability. This was because of my own personal background.
Affordability challenges lead to UC-wide engagement
My father owned a company, but after my freshman year the company collapsed and we lost the income that would have sustained me through college. In the blink of an eye, the stability I had in going to college and building the American dream just collapsed. The economic impact started affecting me when I was at UCLA, when I had repeated conversations with the financial aid office and resource spaces and was repeatedly denied aid and rejected because I was an international student and non-resident.
As an international student, you’re immediately disqualified from close to 95 percent of the resources on campus. That caused a lot of frustration and anger, to be honest with you. I saw how another peer who had U.S. citizenship and was paying less in tuition was about to receive resources and be able to graduate, while I was on the verge of dropping out because I was paying $50,000 a year in tuition.
I think that was the initial point when I thought, things really need to change. From working with the Dashew Center and a bunch of people there, I knew that very few people in the international space on campus get involved with USAC and campuswide committees. So I tried to bridge the gap by communicating their needs in systemwide and campuswide decision-making processes.
So we created the International Student Leadership Coaltion. I was just an ordinary member my first year, but the second year I ran for president and was elected. At that point I started looking into how decisions were made in financial areas, specifically with respect to financial aid. And I became involved with the University of California Student Association (UCSA), which I work for now.
I worked with UCSA to advocate for international students through the UC Board of Regents, becoming the international officer across the UC system for the student body. I advocated for three million dollars to be allocated towards international student and non-resident financial aid. That was also an empowering experience: I was able to work with a bunch of cultural clubs at UCLA, who motivated some 100 students to make public comments and push back against the tuition hike that was then being considered.
Even though the tuition hike did take place, we were able to raise three million dollars to go towards aid to low-income and struggling international students, which was unprecedented. That was the point in time where I thought, okay, I’ve done my piece here. It was the work of many, many international students who, as soon as they understood how they could advocate and fight for themselves, they were there and helped make change happen.
I think my job was just building awareness and giving some fiery speeches. Once we managed to have international students speak to the Board of Regents, they were able to share their struggles, such as their currencies being devalued by 50–60 percent or their family having had to sell their car to get through their junior or senior year. Once we shared these lived experiences with the Regents, it was hard for them not to do anything for these people struggling within the university system. It became about closing that gap in the student experience.
Ashraf Beshay (right) with UCLA Chancellor Gene Bloak at a Board of Regents meeting in July 2018.
Student experience leads to employment
The experience I had at UCLA was very much extra-curricular for me, but it became central to who I am: I fight for what I believe in. That is how I became UCSA policy director — they saw that I was involved in statewide and systemwide organizing. I worked with the UC Board of Regents and was actually the student representative to the Regents’ health committee.
I knew how to navigate campus politics, administrations and systemwide spaces. That added to how I saw myself as fitting with the position. I’m trying to get at the intersection of student well-being and health policies, always making an effort to utilize my academic and leadership skills to advance health equity across California through my role, while building competency in organizing and mobilizing people.
The more I am in policy spaces, the more I realize that healthcare and well-being are affected by policy. The very existence of a healthcare system through which 20 million people are now insured was achieved legislatively and through politics, so there’s a level of appreciation there that’s missed by physicians and care providers when they disengage from politics. I do realize that there’s value in not politicizing healthcare provision, but I also believe we need a subset of physicians and providers who are active in health policy and can help get to people who are unreached and uninsured.
I think that that’s where I can play a role. We need people to bridge that gap and make communication happen.
All photos provided by Mr. Beshay.