Finding Your Life's Service

Caliph Assagai, president of Public Interest Advocacy, stands inside the California State Capitol.
Caliph Assagai, president of Public Interest Advocacy, stands inside the California State Capitol.
Caliph Assagai inspires UC Davis students
By Yinon Raviv 

Caliph Assagai ’06 has the room’s full, undivided attention. Every UC Davis student is sitting straight, ramrod straight. All eyes are pointed at him. Not a cell phone in sight.

“I was just elected President of the Associated Students of the University of California, Davis. I just finished my final exams. I was ready to start my summer internship in the Capitol, doing work I’ve dreamt about doing,” he said, pausing. Fifty pairs of eyes in rapt attention, 50 pairs of ears hanging on his every word.

He continued, “I’ll never forget that call from my stepdad. On the first day of summer before my senior year, my mother passed away.”

Assagai was back at UC Davis to speak as part of the ASUCD’s Student Appreciation Week, offering his perspective to students who were once in his shoes: still figuring out their path in life, still learning how to handle life’s challenges, still finding their voices. Whenever he’s not running his social-justice-lobbying form, Public Interest Advocacy, Assagai moonlights as a motivational speaker. Tonight, he’s at his alma mater, giving back with his insights and musings.

“I’m living my dream. I’m doing what I love to do, which is using my soft skills to empower those who need it, while getting paid,” said Assagai, an alumnus from the College of Letters and Science. “I’m doing what I enjoy, I’m helping others, and I’m supporting myself financially.”

The former ASUCD senator and president currently represents social justice and criminal justice reform clients in the California capital. Nonprofits like the Children’s Defense Fund and the National Alliance on Mental Illness turn to Assagai’s firm for representation before legislature, administrative agencies and local governments. The idea of socially progressive nonprofits having their own lobbyists was virtually unheard of before Assagai came along. Now, these previously underrepresented groups have a voice in Sacramento.

“What I’m doing now is a direct extension of what I did in ASUCD. ASUCD allowed me to express my soft skills through running campaigns, passing legislation, and working with the senators to make the university better,” said Assagai, who added that he met some of his best friends through ASUCD and even lived with other ASUCD senators in a house they tried to name the Capitol of UC Davis. “A lot of people found their gifts and their passions in ASUCD.”

Assagai describes ASUCD as a “farm system” for state politics, much like minor league baseball, since many UC Davis alumni end up with careers in the state and national capitals. 

“What I’m doing now is a direct extension of what I did in ASUCD. ASUCD allowed me to express my soft skills through running campaigns, passing legislation, and working with the senators to make the university better.” — Caliph Assagai

ASUCD served as a catalyst for students’ personal development, teaching them to use their talents to tackle the issues that were most important to them, he noted.

“Everyone struggles to figure out their life’s purpose,” he said, turning to the crowd of fresh, bright, and slightly anxious faces. He continued, “I found my answer by asking a different question. Once I stopped asking what my life’s purpose is, and started asking what my life’s service is, I realized that there’s nothing better you can do for yourself than working to improve other peoples’ lives.”

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