A military brat turned activist, Sharon Elise has persevered through it all

Department chair of sociology shares the inspirations behind her life’s work

Andrea Martinez, Copy Editor

Out of the 264 tenured faculty members at CSUSM in 2015, Dr. Sharon Elise is one of seven faculty members who are black.

Elise joined CSUSM in 1994 as an Assistant Professor of Sociology and dropped “assistant” in her title in 2005, later becoming chair of the department in 2012.

In 1974, she received a full ride at age 17 for her undergraduate career at Goucher College, the alma mater of CSUSM President Karen Haynes.

“Socially, that was a difficult place, but intellectually, it was great,” said Elise. “That was a really good experience for me, but I just couldn’t do it. The race and class issues were profound.”

Elise left Goucher in 1975 to move back home to Chula Vista after her parents’ divorce and attended UCSD to complete her bachelor’s.

She took time off from school after earning her bachelor’s in history at age 20 and applied to the University of Oregon at age 24 for her master’s and later her Ph.D.

“I applied and they rejected me … they said, ‘We didn’t admit you because you’re a non-traditional student.’ Well that rang a caution bell,” said Elise.

Graduate students urged her to appeal since she was just as academically in line with them.

“I asked them, ‘What is it about me that’s non-traditional?’ Because, of course, in their whole career, they had one black student in their grad program.”

She met with the admissions committee and won the appeal.

Since then, in the 21 years she has been at CSUSM, Elise has taught 25 courses relating to sociology.

“This campus has challenged me to really stretch myself beyond what I thought my focus was,” she said.

In those courses, Elise’s culture blends into her work.

“It’s not my race and culture specifically, but it’s more how I negotiate those things in an environment where there’s an absence of blackness,” she said. “It impacts me harshly … I’ve certainly always had to display my intelligence, [but] at the same time, I don’t conform.”

Elise grew up as an military brat during Jim Crow and segregation.

“When we were driving back and forth across the country, we couldn’t count on using a bathroom, we couldn’t count on going to a restaurant. We carried food, we carried this little potty, which we all hatedoh God, not the pottybut yes, that’s how we were brought up.”

In college, Elise became an activist for social issues relating to women, people of color, poverty, immigrants and first-generation college students.

“I come from a tradition of battling for the underdog,” said Elise, “I developed a practice of political activism as a graduate student … so how would I then come to my position as a faculty member without those sensibilities?”

Having always found joy in creative writing, Elise is a practicing poet. In her publication, “MISS’sippi,” Elise writes:

“I am back in southern California spilling Miss’sippi’s blues on the back of a yellow flier that says I can bring peace in my life by yogic breathing, but I have been to Miss’sippi and I have seen stillness is just the absence of motion, like breathing is not walking, not running, not lifting, and never flying except in your mind. And when all motion is denied, by all means, breathe. Breathe like your life depends on it.”