Tiffany Dena Loftin met President Barack Obama for the first time just minutes after he delivered his famous speech about the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager in Florida:
" … this could have been my son," Obama told the nation. "Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago."
When Loftin (Oakes '11, political science), a young African American activist, met the president in the Oval Office that day, she was overwhelmed and nervous, but she managed to pull herself together.
After all, she wanted to talk with him about a pressing civil rights issue that had been on her mind for many years—the right for everyone in this country, including under-represented groups—to have access to an excellent and affordable higher education.
She must have made quite an impression. In February, Loftin, 26, found out that she had been appointed to the President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans, which focuses on improving student achievement.
The commission hopes to increase the number of African American students applying to, persisting in, and successfully completing college to ensure that the United States meets the president's 2020 goal of becoming the world leader in college graduates.
The news of her appointment came as a big surprise to Loftin since she didn't apply to the position. She found out she was in the running only after receiving word from the White House.
Loftin is the youngest person on the commission. Her work involves changing the conversation about higher education in this country.
"I believe education is not a privilege—it's a right," said Loftin. She's been fighting for this right ever since she started at UC Santa Cruz.
During her time on campus Loftin served as Student Union Assembly president. She was also a part of the movement addressing recruitment and retention for students of color through programs like Destination Higher Education (DHE), and hate crimes and safety toward the black community on campus.
"Because of hate crimes at several UCs in 2010, it was a scary time to be a black woman on campus," she said.
Loftin also served as president of the United States Student Association (USSA) until 2013. The USSA was founded as the National Student Association in 1946 and is the largest student-run and student-led organization dedicated to advocating for college students in the United States.
Loftin grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of a single mom. She is the only person in her immediate family to graduate from college. Her life story adds urgency to her mission and her message: "We need to change the narrative around higher education," she said. "It should not be about whether or not college is worth it. If I hadn't gone to college, I don't know where I'd be."
Part of her job is to confront barriers to education including costs.
Loftin, who is currently paying off her student loans, dreams of a time when no qualified student defers or cancels plans for college because of financial constraints.
Loftin's energy and enthusiasm seem tireless—she holds down a full-time job with the labor organization AFL-CIO and travels across the country for her activism work with campaigns like Freedom Side and #BlackLivesMatter. She's charismatic and talks fast and efficiently. She talks with pride about President Obama's suggestion that she run for office. In spite of that glowing endorsement, she's happiest as a grassroots organizer and activist.
Loftin maintains contact with many of the organizers she met through SOAR/Student Media/Cultural Arts and Diversity (SOMeCA).
"A lot of the networks I work with today," she said, "I built with the support and development I received at UC Santa Cruz."