UC Santa Cruz student Aissata Ba
UC Santa Cruz student Aissata Ba.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
UC Santa Cruz

Now it’s her turn: UCSC student draws inspiration from her personal hero, former first lady Michelle Obama

Aissata Ba, a second-year legal studies major at UC Santa Cruz, didn’t think she had a chance to be selected to participate in an event with former first lady Michelle Obama. But after meeting her in person, she says she feels the experience has given her an opportunity to imagine new ways for her to pursue her dreams.

A sophomore at UC Santa Cruz, Aissata Ba, was just getting settled in her first year of in-person classes on campus when she heard about an opportunity to meet Michelle Obama in person. She didn’t think she would get selected but she applied anyway, and got it.

She and fewer than 20 other college students from around the country traveled to Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Maryland, to meet with the former first lady for a 90-minute conversation on Nov. 9. During the meeting, the students talked with Obama about themes in her memoir, “Becoming” — which Aissata read in high school.

“[‘Becoming’] changed my perspective on life,” she said. “Seeing someone that looked like me, a Black woman, get to a space that I could only dream of, motivated and inspired me.”

Born in a Chicago suburb, Aissata — pronounced eye-seh-ta — lived there until she was 9, when her family moved to California. Her parents, who emigrated from the West African country of Mauritania, settled the family in the south Orange County suburb of Aliso Viejo after living for a year in San Diego. She has two younger sisters, who are both in high school.

UC Santa Cruz student Aissata Ba
UC Santa Cruz student Aissata Ba was hired this semester as a graphics and marketing intern by the UCSC Women’s Center.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

When Aissata was accepted into UCSC, she was excited to not only take the next step toward possibly becoming a civil rights lawyer, but also to be in an environment where she would likely meet people who share more similarities with her and look like her. In high school, she said, she was the only student who wore a hijab — she is Muslim — until her younger sister became a freshman.

While she enjoyed participating remotely in UCSC groups and activities during her first year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, being on campus, living with other students and having opportunities like meeting Obama, has been eye-opening.

She was hired this quarter to work at UCSC’s Women’s Center as a graphics and marketing intern. Her program coordinator, Abbygale González, told Lookout that Aissata is helping revamp the center’s website and create graphics for its social media platforms.

“Aissata is extremely creative,” she said. “She exudes such confidence.”

Aissata is extremely creative. She exudes such confidence.

González was one of her references for the application process to meet Obama, which was sponsored by The Humanities Institute at UCSC.

When Aissata received the call from the institute, she said things moved very quickly. She was informed Nov. 1 and was on a plane Nov. 7 to Washington — her first flight and trip alone.

Her mother, Zeienebou Ba, was terrified and jokingly said that she wasn’t happy with Aissata’s selection for the trip until she was safely back home.

“It was a great opportunity,” her mother told Lookout. “She came back very happy.”

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Not many people would know this about Aissata, but she is very shy, or at least used to be, according to her mother and close friend Sophia Parizadeh, a second-year politics major at UCSC.

She said she’s watched as Aissata has come out of her shell, which is evident on her popular YouTube and Instagram accounts. Parizadeh has been going to school with Aissata since middle school, but they didn’t become close friends until they joined the debate team in eighth grade.

Aissata received the call from the institute on Nov. 1 and was on a plane Nov. 7 to Washington.
Aissata received the call from the institute on Nov. 1 and was on a plane Nov. 7 to Washington — her first flight and trip alone.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Parizadeh says Aissata is her icon, and among their friends, she is known as “Queen Aissata” for how calmly she “handles the craziness” around her, whether it be the demands of juggling life and school or the chaos of working at a coffee shop.

Parizadeh also recalls how Aissata kept her cool when in high school a group of boys touched her hijab and laughed. Parizadeh was in awe at how Aissata didn’t let that experience affect the way she lives her life.

“But it disturbed me so deeply. And I just thought to myself, how many times has this girl faced something like this alone and ... it hasn’t taken away from her joy,” said Parizadeh. “It hasn’t taken away, or visibly taken away from her positive spirit and her optimistic outlook on life. She just sees good in so many people.”

It’s this very challenge Aissata was hoping Obama could share her thoughts on.

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As part of the event with Obama, each student brought a question they might have an opportunity to ask her. While Aissata wasn’t able to ask her question — about how Obama finds peace amid seeing so many injustices, particularly those against Black people — she felt she received an answer from the conversation broadly.

She said Obama generally spoke of the need to sometimes step away from what might be happening in the world to protect one’s mental health. Aissata said the former first lady also finds peace in meeting youth who care about making change.

After the conversation, Obama hugged each of the students, including Aissata, nearly bringing her to tears.

“I think I said something along the lines of, ‘Everything you put out into the world inspires so many people, and so many young girls, thank you so much for that,’” Aissata recalled. “And [Obama] said, ‘Now it’s your turn.’”