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A Student with Experience

Ishan Shah returns to USC Dornsife in August to complete his degree in political science after becoming the youngest member of the Ohlone College Board of Trustees.

Ishan Shah, the youngest person and the first Indian-American to be elected to the Ohlone College Board of Trustees in Alameda County, California, will return to USC Dornsife in the Fall to finish his degree in political science. Photos courtesy of Ishan Shah.
Ishan Shah, the youngest person and the first Indian-American to be elected to the Ohlone College Board of Trustees in Alameda County, California, will return to USC Dornsife in the Fall to finish his degree in political science. Photos courtesy of Ishan Shah.

Last Fall, Ishan Shah was a senior with only weeks left before he was due to graduate from USC Dornsife with a degree in political science. Then disaster struck.

Shah’s mother was stricken with cancer. Interrupting his studies, he returned home to Northern California to care for her.

At the time, it was hard to believe this crisis could bring with it one silver lining, never mind several. Most importantly, Shah’s mother is in remission. Going home to Fremont, near San Francisco, was the catalyst that turned two of Shah’s most cherished dreams into a reality: he is now an elected official and a small business owner. And the icing on the cake? He is due to return to USC Dornsife this Fall to finish his degree.

On May 14, Shah was voted onto the Ohlone College Board of Trustees, in Alameda County, California, making him the community college’s first Indian-American trustee and youngest member in the board’s history. A former Ohlone College student, Shah overcame stiff competition, beating two other finalists. When he returns to USC in the Fall, Shah plans to split his time between Ohlone Community College and USC until he completes his bachelor’s degree later this year.

Shah caught the political bug at a tender age, crediting his grandfather, Bihari Shah, a former elected school board official in India, with getting him interested in running for office.

When he was 15, Shah wrote to then-President Bill Clinton about his dream. The president replied to the teen: “I encourage you to listen carefully to the concerns of the people you wish to represent. … There’s no one way to pursue a career as an elected official.”

“It was useful advice,” Shah said, admitting that Clinton’s response played into his decision to run for city council while still in high school. A few months into his campaign however, he realized that not only did he lack sufficient funds, but his pitch — that people should vote for him because he could bring a valuable student perspective to the table — would be a better fit if he were running for office in higher education. He switched gears and began campaigning for the board of Ohlone College.

He lost.

“The biggest thing I learned from my first campaign was that people aren’t going to treat you nicely because you’re young,” Shah said. “Movies, TV and media romanticize youth involvement in politics, but the reality is it’s a war zone out there.”

However, it turned out there was a silver lining to that, too.

“The experience gave me my USC application essay about running for office and what that entailed,” Shah said.

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Shah is sworn in as a member of the Ohlone College Board of Trustees by Board Chair Garrett Yee.

His campaign had also put him on the radar of California Gov. Jerry Brown, whose office was looking for student representation on the California Student Aid Commission.

“My application for that post was to a large extent tongue-in-cheek,” Shah said. “I wrote, ‘Why should a student be on the Student Aid Commission? That’s a terrible idea.’ Governor Brown’s office called and the gist of what they said was ‘You’re 19 years old, put your money where your mouth is.’ ”

Invited to attend an interview in Sacramento, California, Shah got the job. “I was blessed that my professors at USC were so understanding about the fact that I had to fly up to Sacramento every month to sit on the commission.”

Shah admitted that he found it hard at times to switch hats. “One weekend you’re sitting in Sacramento making decisions on important matters and the next week you’re a student sitting in a classroom and no longer in charge.” However, Shah found the two experiences to be mutually enriching.

“I was adamant that even though I had this job with all these commitments I didn’t want to miss out on my USC experience.

“I also had the good fortune of enrolling in some truly phenomenal classes with some incredible professors and teaching assistants at USC Dornsife. Their advice helped me become a better student and commissioner.”

Shortly after finishing his term on the commission in August 2013, Shah received the phone call informing him of his mother’s cancer.

He said he will never forget the kindness of his Delta Chi fraternity members who rallied around to rush him to the airport and supported him through his mother’s illness. “I had to withdraw from my classes but the Trojan Family stepped up big time for me and continues to do so,” Shah said of this difficult time. “I couldn’t ask for better friends.”

With his original plan of going to law school now on hold, Shah’s father, who immigrated to the United States with Shah’s mother from Gujarat, a state in northwestern India, in 1989, encouraged him to buy a small business. Since January 2014, Shah has hired and trained employees and remodeled the shipping services center he bought offering Xeroxing, faxing, mailing and other services in Walnut Creek, California. “Ideally, by the time I return to USC in August, the business will be self-sustaining,” said Shah, who sees the dual aspects of his current career as a perfect fit.

“A campaign requires you to be savvy in business, finance, HR, marketing and people skills — the same principles which apply to running a business.”

As for his election to the board of Ohlone College, Shah shrugs off any suggestion that he might be too young or inexperienced to hold such a post.

“Where people see inexperience, I see perspective,” he said. “And two years on a state commission is a crash course in governance. It’s a fast-paced environment where you’re expected to play ball at one of the highest levels of politics.

“I used to be the guy with the plan who had it all charted out, but if the whirlwind of the last year of my life has taught me anything it’s this: Never forget the bigger picture, but adjust for the moment.”