Sitara Nayudu
Sitara Nayudu was elected the ASUCI president for the 2010-2011 year and she dedicates to serving the students and providing an environment geared towards greater school spirit. Michelle Kim/UC Irvine

Three years ago at UC Irvine’s welcoming convocation, Sitara Nayudu was a nervous, eager freshman. Watching the student president up onstage, confidently addressing 5,000 people, she decided that as a senior she wanted to give that speech herself.

This week she will. Nayudu, the first young woman of color and first engineering major to head Associated Students of UCI, is scheduled to speak Monday morning.

“I am so excited. For me, it was more a metaphor,” she says of her freshman aspiration. “Now I think it’s going to be that moment when I actually realize I’m ASUCI president.”

Nayudu’s senior year of high school had been heartbreaking. A close friend committed suicide, and she damaged her ankle so badly that her dream of being a track star was dashed. From a close-knit Indian American family in Diamond Bar, she opted to stay near home for college and attend UCI.

“I’m so glad I did,” says Nayudu, 21, an environmental engineering major and unabashed UCI booster. “What’s not to love? You have the Southern California climate! My housing complex has its own pool and Jacuzzi.”

She’s impatient with people who see the campus as second to others. “Anybody can be a bear or a Trojan,” she says, referring to some common university mascots. “There’s only one anteater – and anteaters are a lot bigger than you think!”

She praises the school’s cultural diversity and wide range of excellent academic programs, from theater and writing to political science and engineering. Nayudu’s enthusiasm has endeared her to the UCI Foundation board of trustees, where she’s the first student ex officio member. It has also impressed fellow students, who last spring elected her ASUCI president by a two-to-one margin over her opponent.

But it wasn’t easy for Nayudu to achieve her freshman goal. When she applied to be one of nearly 100 ASUCI interns that year, she didn’t make the cut. She credits close friends she made in the Summer Multicultural Leadership Institute – whom she calls “smileys” – with keeping her on track. She threw herself into an array of other groups, including the Completely Insane Anteaters, an informal spirit squad at varsity games. By last year, she was chief of staff to then-ASUCI president Megan Braun.

Nayudu already knows the job is grueling. Her summer calendar was crowded with as many as a dozen meetings a day, and she regularly gets e-mails from students seeking help on everything from financial aid to being arrested for alcohol possession. Tough economic times mean her classmates are grappling with the highest fees in university history, class sizes are swelling and favorite teachers may lose their jobs.

But Nayudu sees the bright side and is determined to show everybody else the same. There are more than 500 student clubs on campus, and most don’t know about each other or ASUCI. She aims to change that with an army of communication interns who will conduct extensive outreach.

At a more basic level, she encourages her peers to have some fun. “I don’t want students to feel like all they have to do is study,” she says. “I want everyone here to go to a basketball game or a play or an art show before they graduate.”

Nayudu will not focus on herself in her convocation speech Monday. She plans to welcome the incoming class of 6,000 and “hopefully inspire them to appreciate the campus and do great things while they’re here.”

But she will conclude with a deeply personal reference, even if others don’t realize it. The goal Nayudu set at her own freshman convocation motivated her tremendously, carrying her through difficult times to a happy day.

“People’s dreams can be big or small; it doesn’t matter,” she reads from her notes. “What matters is that a dream come true can change a person in some indefinable way.”