Sami Birmingham-Babauta ’16 (Kinesiology) was on the ground piecing together a chair with another woman for a community service project in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The CSUN alumna drilled screws, securing the legs to the base. She looked up and saw a familiar figure that she had seen countless times but had never met.
One of her first thoughts was the man was taller in person than she had imagined he would be.
“Hi. How’s it going?” President Barack Obama greeted them.
After a brief conversation, he told the women: “I’m so proud of you guys.”
Birmingham-Babauta then patted Obama’s arm and replied: “We’re proud of you, too.”
Birmingham-Babauta, a recent CSUN graduate from Saipan in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), has been a vocal advocate of health and fitness for the people of the tiny island and U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific Ocean. After a run for the Northern Mariana Islands House of Representatives at just 25 years old and influential work in government, healthcare and education, Birmingham-Babauta was one of 200 emerging civic leaders chosen for the inaugural cohort of the Obama Foundation Leaders: Asia Pacific.
As an Obama Leader, Birmingham-Babauta in December attended a conference in Malaysia, which included skill-building workshops, leadership-development training, networking opportunities and a community-service project.
For the next year, Birmingham-Babauta will receive support from the Obama Foundation in the form of exclusive webinars and a virtual speaker series.
“I’m actively trying to fill these gaps — to identify them and then try to do something, whether that’s create a program or run for office,” said Birmingham-Babauta on why she was chosen for the prestigious honor. “That’s what the Obama Foundation is looking for in their Obama Leaders — people who are really trying to make change in their community.”
A couple of events in Birmingham-Babauta’s past inspired her passion for health advocacy.
When Birmingham-Babauta was a child, her grandmother’s leg was amputated and she later died as a result of diabetes. According to an April 2019 article in the Saipan Tribune, an estimated 12 to 18 percent of adults in the Northern Mariana Islands have diabetes.
Birmingham-Babauta had her own health scare at 14 years old when she developed a bleeding disorder called Von Willebrand disease. As a result of the disease, she gained weight and became depressed. After multiple trips to the doctor and different medications, Birmingham-Babauta decided to find a cure and researched extensively online. She found a simple formula — diet and fitness.
After reshaping her diet — for example, changing white bread to wheat bread and eating more leafy vegetablkes — and increasing her level of physical activity, her symptoms were gone in a year.
Seeing how diabetes has affected her homeland and finding a solution to her health issue created a drive for Birmingham-Babauta to make a wide impact on her community.
CSUN played a part.
She came to CSUN to study kinesiology and worked on the university’s acclaimed 3 WINS Fitness exercise program. The program provides free health training and nutrition education to underserved communities. One such 3 WINS program is specifically targeted to prevent diabetes.
During her time at the university, Birmingham-Babauta also worked at the Student Recreation Center, which she said further grew her passion for health and fitness.
Additionally, she was on the university’s club rugby team.
After graduating, she returned home and worked for CNMI’s Commonwealth Healthcare Center in multiple roles and for Northern Marianas College in its health and nutrition program. She became the chairwoman for the Physical Activity Council on Saipan and constructed a community-based health program called “Project M,” which borrowed from her work with 3 WINS Fitness.
However, before its launch, Typhoon Yutu — the strongest typhoon ever recorded to impact the Mariana Islands — struck last fall and damaged schools where Project M was to be implemented. Now the program is shelved.
“It was ready to go. I was so excited. People were excited about it,” she said.
During the planning of Project M, Birmingham-Babauta was working as a research associate for policy, sustainability and development for the Commonwealth Healthcare Center tracking health care legislation. She witnessed first-hand how difficult it was to move legislation forward and decided, at 25 years old, to run for a seat in the CNMI House of Representatives.
Though she didn’t gain election, it further showed her community how passionate she was and her desire to be a difference-maker for it.
Others took notice.
Through an application process, she was chosen to be one of 200 Obama Leaders.
“It was very inspirational — and in ways that I didn’t expect going into the conference,” Birmingham-Babauta said. “We don’t have to reach that level of office [president of the United States] to really make changes within our home. There are times that I think that I’m this community person and giving back to my community. I always say that I want to [make an impact]. Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing that or I’m not doing it effectively. I don’t see immediate results. Michelle and President Obama reminded us that each of us is doing something for our home, and we may never see the impact in our lifetime.”
Birmingham-Babauta has found the next way that she can lift her community.
Along with fellow Obama Leader Sheila Jack Babauta, Birmingham-Babauta is launching a mentorship program for middle school-aged girls that addresses the gaps in physical, mental and emotional health. The program is being designed with a similar format to Obama Foundation methods — presentations and exercises for skill-building, panelist Q&A, and opportunities for sharing.
“It’s important to empower women and girls to use their voices and share their stories,” Birmingham-Babauta said. “There are a lot of changes that happen to us girls in middle school, and it’s an especially vulnerable time in life. We hope to provide a platform that lets them know they are not alone and help them build meaningful connections to their peers and build relationships with mentors.”