Like many others, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the course of Cherika Gamble’s life. During that time, she lost her mother, the beloved matriarch of her family for whom Gamble credits for providing unconditional love, strength and shelter. Her sudden loss caused a ripple effect for Gamble, who – at just 23 – found herself in financial debt, coupled with housing insecurity.
To make ends meet, Gamble worked three different jobs, while also being a full-time student. In turn, this made it difficult for Gamble to qualify for food stamps or a Housing Choice Voucher as she did not meet eligibility for a one-bedroom apartment. This left her with no choice, but to sleep at the hotels where she worked or in her car in between classes.
As a result, Gamble’s emotional and physical health suffered, and she was eventually hospitalized. Through it all, one thing she will never forget is the support she received from her faculty and colleagues at Fresno State.
“I hit rock bottom, and I had to fight tooth and nail for my education and constantly show that I was worthy of graduating,” Gamble said. “My determination to survive and succeed in my studies gave me strength. The support I received from my professors, mentors and eldest sister, Xzaviera Ballenger-Jahsi, helped keep me going.”
Gamble overcame the odds and is making history as the very first Fresno State graduate ever to earn deans’ medalist honors for two different colleges at the university. She was selected as the medalist for both the College of Health and Human Services and College of Social Sciences, where she will earn a bachelor of science degree in health science, with an emphasis in community health, and bachelor of arts degree in women’s, gender and sexuality studies, respectively.
When Gamble was unhoused, she said she found solace at Fresno State, which became a home of sorts and a network of infinite resources.
After confiding in one of her professors, Gamble was referred to the Student Health and Counseling Center, where she was able to utilize individual and group counseling services and received assistance with basic needs. This included receiving funds through Project Hope and the Good Samaritan Grant at Fresno State, which helped Gamble secure an apartment.
Gamble was also a regular visitor to the Student Cupboard, which provided her free food and hygiene products. In addition, the Office of Black Student Success connected her with her mentors and other Black students whom she could relate to in a deeply personal way. With allyship from the Cross Cultural and Gender Center, Gamble said she was able to fully explore her own sexual orientation.
“I’m forever grateful for services like the Cross Cultural and Gender Gender, the Student Cupboard, the Office of Black Student Success and especially Fresno State’s NAACP,” Gamble said. “Without those programs and services, I wouldn’t be where I am now. When my mom passed away, I felt like I lost a part of my identity. Through these services, I was able to rediscover who I am – particularly within the NAACP, who helped me reclaim my Blackness. I found joy in coming to school, and knowing I had collectivity among my peers.”
In the fall of 2022, Gamble had the opportunity to work with the Cross Cultural and Gender Center as the LGBTQ+ student liaison. She sought to be a source of support for others facing adversity. In essence, she found renewed purpose.
As the liaison, Gamble was on the frontline of facilitating comprehensive gender-affirming care services and fostering diversity and inclusivity on campus for LGBTQ+ students, who she said often feel silenced, marginalized and unsafe.
“It’s an honor to have served in that position,” Gamble said. “It was very personal for me because I’m part of the LGBTQ+ community, and I know how hard these individuals have fought to be able to live their authentic selves. I’m grateful that these students have opened up to me and felt safe with me enough to share a lot of hidden secrets that we think college students don’t go through.”
Her passion for social and gender issues is initially what drew her to double majoring in women’s, gender and sexuality studies.
“Cher represents the excellence of our Fresno State students,” said Dr. Katherine Fobear, associate professor in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. “Not only excellence in overcoming significant hardship and struggles to achieve her education, but also excellence in her scholarship and advocacy. Her work as the LGBTQ+ student liaison speaks to Cher’s abundance of leadership and empathy for marginalized students and community members.”
Gamble said her passion for public health is a testament to those who came before her – particularly her mother and grandmother, who was a public health nurse. Toward the end of their lives, both suffered from medical malpractice and/or neglect, Gamble said, which inspired her to take a public health course to learn more about health inequities and autonomy, and how this impacts people of color. After one course, she decided to double major in health science.
“My grandmother always instilled in me the notion of giving back to our community, especially Black people who have always been disadvantaged and disenfranchised,” Gamble said. “She taught me that we have to take care of one another.”
An advocate by heart and activist by nature, Gamble made it her mission to bring her grandmother’s vision to life. As an ambassador for Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, she worked on reproductive health care initiatives, hoping to provide safe and validating care for patients and community members. She also volunteered with the Central Valley Black Nurses Association, helping to provide funding to Black nursing students through the Mary Eliza Mahoney nursing scholarship.
As a Ronald E. McNair Scholar, Gamble engaged in research focused on Black feminist and reproductive justice advocacy addressing Black maternal health. Her research, which she presented at California State University, Chico’s 50th Anniversary of the Womxn’s Empowerment conference, was awarded a $5,000 research grant.
In the fall, Gamble will launch into an interdisciplinary doctorate program at the University of California, Merced, where she will study critical race theory and ethnic studies. Afterwards, Gamble aspires to come back to Fresno State, where she hopes to continue her quest of mentoring and serving students.
“I always heard the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ and it definitely took a village to help me get to where I’m at,” Gamble said. “The university pushed me to challenge my activism and outlook on life. It’s challenged me to speak up in ways I never thought I was able to. It’s prepared me to take on the world in my next journey of life. I’m so proud to be a Bulldog, and I can’t wait to come back one day and help make a difference. This is my home.”
Cherika Gamble was selected as the College of Health and Human Services’ 2023 Undergraduate Deans’ Medalist and is a candidate for the prestigious California State University, Fresno University President’s Medal, which is the highest honor the University presents to an undergraduate student. The President’s Medalist is selected from the nine undergraduate Dean’s Medalists who represent the academic colleges and schools and the Division of Student Affairs.