By Dave Meany
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Shari McMahan, Eastern Washington University’s 27th president, served as the student body president of her high school — after all, that seems like a logical path for any future leader. But as a young person growing up in Southern California, McMahan originally had other ideas…
She was interested in theater, and a possible acting career. It didn’t hurt that her father, a businessman with a side hustle as a professional bridge player, also happened to be close friends with a well-established Hollywood producer.
Those acting dreams were set aside when the producer friend, while recognizing her abilities, encouraged her to get a college degree. She took the advice, and, once enrolled as an undergraduate, she quickly discovered a new set of talents: a love for research and a passion for health and wellness studies.
Eastern magazine sat down with McMahan to help our readers get to know EWU’s new president, a first-generation college graduate whose student-centered leadership style promises a welcome surge of energy, enthusiasm and renewal.
You were raised in Downey, California, a city in Los Angeles County. What were your interests as a young person?
SM: In high school I was really active. I loved theater and was voted ‘most promising actress.’ Of course, I never went that route, but I did love being in the school plays. And I was student body president.
You told us earlier that it was your father’s Hollywood producer friend who encouraged you to consider college. How did that happen?
SM: He thought I had a lot more in me than acting, that maybe I shouldn’t pursue performing as a primary objective, and that a good college foundation would be important.
Once in college, it sounds like you quickly discovered your passion for research and health issues…
SM: When I was an undergraduate [at UC Irvine] I had an opportunity to do research with a faculty member and grad student. And, as part of the research process, I got really interested after discovering that what we were doing was groundbreaking — we were looking at lead levels, and would collect hair samples to determine the amount of lead in the body. I was fascinated that I could learn so much about somebody’s environmental exposure by simply looking at hair.
So, this sort of took you down that health/wellness path as you moved through your studies?
SM: Right. From there I was very interested in the environment in general, so after my bachelor’s degree I decided to go on for my master’s degree in health science. I did that out of Cal State Northridge — a university much like Eastern when you compare regional comprehensives — except instead of working with grad students I worked with faculty. I also at one point interned at Allergan Pharmaceuticals and Laura Scudder’s [a California-based snack food producer] doing environmental health and safety work. It was a great opportunity to get industry experience.
And this put you in good position for more noteworthy research?
SM: Yes. At UC Irvine we sort of shifted to an interesting area — exposure to electromagnetic fields — and I created my own research project which became nationally known. I was published, and from there I was granted my dissertation and they gave me an adjunct appointment at UC Irvine.
In addition to teaching and research, you eventually got on the leadership path at your next position on the faculty at Cal State Fullerton, correct?
SM: I stayed at Fullerton until I got tenure, and I held a variety of leadership positions there. Usually the leadership positions aren’t things you seek — it’s because, ‘Oh, we need a chair, let’s have her be chair of this department or make her interim dean… ’ I served when asked, and eventually became deputy provost. I stayed about 16 years at Fullerton and then the provost position came up at San Bernardino.
You didn’t seek these positions, but you did see something in yourself that suggested it would be a good path…
SM: There’s part of me, like I said, that’s always the attitude that I had: ‘I’ll help lead, I’ll help do this.’
You were serving successfully as provost at Cal State San Bernardino. What was it about the open president’s position at Eastern that made you feel it was right for you?
SM: Well, I had some experience working with underrepresented students [at both Fullerton and San Bernardino]. So that was the first thing that attracted me to Eastern; the opportunity to really change lives and make a difference for the students… So that’s what encouraged me to apply, and of course everything else fell into place. I found the people great, I was told, ‘Oh, there’s a ton of hiking, a ton of lakes,’ and other outdoor things that I really enjoy.
Speaking of the outdoors… the weather was mostly fantastic after your arrival in late June. But it has turned recently, and not in a Southern California type of way…
SM: I was a little wary of the snow, yes [laughs]. But I was excited too, because I had been here twice before [for her interview and post-search introduction to the campus] and it was snowing both times. Really, it’s been beautiful and exceeded all of my expectations.
And you’re ready for winter?
SM: Last week I bought snow tires and had them installed, so I’m good on that — and, I just ordered snow shoes that I am going to try out. So we will see!
The weather isn’t the only adjustment. Your children still live in Orange County; I can imagine it must have been difficult to move away from them?
SM: I have two kids. My son, Hunter, just got married over the summer, and my daughter, Sierra, is 21. When all of this came about [the EWU position], my idea was I would take the lead and try something new and different and tell them it’s ok to try something new and different. I look at it as ‘create your adventure.’ I never would have left my kids a year ago. This opportunity came and I really felt passionate about making a difference here.
You live in the University House on campus, was that always part of the plan?
SM: I was actually kind of relieved initially that there was campus housing because I was concerned about such a change in weather conditions [and driving]. But mostly it was about my ability to get out and see the students — to me it’s all about the students!
And living right on campus you are able to just walk to the PUB and visit with students, and attend all sorts of events…
SM: I tell myself, ‘Make sure to get out and walk over to the PUB, see what’s going on!’ Just recently I’ve had the opportunity to attend a powerful EWU Theatre production [26 Pebbles], and I’ve hit every sport that’s been played here so far — I’ve done football, hockey and women’s basketball. And soccer and volleyball. I’m really trying to be part of campus life, and I am so proud of all of our students.
You have talked about how your research influenced your interest in promoting a healthy lifestyle and exercise. Is that why, as a certified Zumba instructor, you have made it a priority to teach a class on campus when time allows?
SM: Well part of it is, I think, that it helps fulfill that ‘acting’ mission — getting out in front of people and doing something that inspires and excites them. We all laughed at the end, that’s the main thing: if you can get people laughing and they don’t think they’re working out. That’s brilliant, right? So that’s part of it. The other part of it is that my father died from cancer and my mom died from heart disease, so I’ve just always been motivated to live a healthy lifestyle.
As you’ve made the rounds meeting the campus community and alumni, what have you noticed to be EWU’s greatest strength?
SM: Pride. The strength of the Eastern community — the students, our alumni — is the pride in knowing that this campus has, and will continue, to serve them well.
What are the key issues you will be focused on as you continue to settle in?
SM: Besides working on a more inclusive campus, the budget is at the forefront, along with enrollment challenges. It’s really about making sure that we right-size as an institution, and that our next strategic plan is oriented around who we are as a university. And we’re starting those dialogues and discussions now.
You’re focused on Eastern now, but is there anything on your bucket list you’d like to eventually try?
SM: I would love to do one of those cruises where you go around the world. It would be so much fun to see the different countries. I’ve done the typical cruises, but I’ve never done something longer where you spend a few months at sea — I think I’d be good with that.