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A passion for politics

After receiving their education, four University of Phoenix alumni find meaningful careers in California State Legislature.

How do you plan to make your mark on the world? For these four University of Phoenix graduates, receiving an education was a springboard into building a purposeful and meaningful career in California state government.

Although their backgrounds are diverse—including the military, law enforcement and local campaign advocacy—these alumni have one thing in common. Each recognized the critical need to achieve a higher education in order to reach their goals, and then went on to win elected roles to serve their communities in the California State Legislature. 

We caught up with Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, Assemblyman Jim Cooper, State Senator Isadore Hall and Assemblyman Mike Gipson to find out why they got involved in politics, and how they view the important work they’re doing every day. 

Phoenix Focus: What led you to go into politics?  

Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez: My five children. It was never my dream to be a politician. But I do think the best way to teach children how to be leaders is to be the real-life example for them. The way I see it, my job is to do what I can to improve the world they live in, and their job is to keep it that way. 

"I think the best way to teach children how to be leaders is to be the real-life example for them."
– Melissa Melendez, University of Phoenix alumna and California state assemblywoman

Assemblyman Jim Cooper: After I retired as a captain with 30 years in the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, I felt like I could make a difference. Having worked directly for the sheriff, I was able to witness how decisions were made and how they impacted others.  Law enforcement gives you a tremendous amount of experience because you deal with everything from good to bad. 

State Senator Isadore Hall: My mother always pressed upon my five siblings and me to give back to the community. I was always volunteering in a senior center home or at the community center, and that allowed me to look into the political component. When my godfather became the first African-American mayor in the city of Lynwood, California, I worked on his campaign. 

Assemblyman Mike Gipson: My cousin was killed coming out of a liquor store in South Central Los Angeles because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. When my family put up a $5,000 reward, we asked the city of Los Angeles, through a city councilmember, to do likewise, and they did. I started working for that city councilmember, Robert Farrell, and that’s what caused me to get involved in community action and activism.

PF: What's the most important aspect of your role in the legislature?  

MM: Representing every constituent well, regardless of his or her political party. I think everyone has the right to be heard. I read every email and letter sent to me. I think that’s the most important aspect, making sure that I am connected with the people I represent. 

JC: Improving the economy and creating jobs. While the economy is improving, people are still struggling to get by, especially the middle class. I want to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard and represented in the Legislature.

IH: Being a consensus maker. You can’t do anything when you have a polarized government. When you’re able to bring both sides to the table, you move government forward. 

MG: Creating laws that help advance a better standard of living for people in my community and outside my community. Being able to stand up for those that society has labeled invisible, and to let them know that they have a strong advocate who is going to work on their behalf.

PF: What makes you most proud? 

MM: I’ve had 11 bills signed by the governor, which is no small feat when you are in the minority party. And they’re wide ranging—from helping our military members to helping the kids in schools. 

JC: Long before I got involved in politics, a lot of my outside activity was centered on youth. I coached a lot of youth sports, was on the board of directors for the Boys and Girls Club, for Big Brother and Big Sisters, and worked with homeless teens. Kids are our future and we owe it to them to provide them with every opportunity to be successful.

IH: Being able to step up to the challenge of making right some social wrongs. Homelessness has grown to over 12 percent in Los Angeles and the highest demographic is females with children. Being able to address that by putting hundreds of millions of dollars in our state budget to combat that issue, I think that’s important.

MG: I wrote a law to close the state loophole when it comes to vehicle manslaughter. My son was killed at the age of three by vehicular manslaughter. Previously, there was a statue of limitations of three years, so that if you killed someone with your vehicle in a hit-and-run, you could get away with it after three years passes. But since I wrote law AB835 and the governor of California signed my bill, now individuals in California who kill someone in a hit-and-run homicide will be brought to justice whenever they are found.

PF: How did your education help you realize your goals? 

MM: When I decided to get my MBA, I had just had my fifth child, and it was a now or never moment. Go back to school, and do it well, no matter what how tired you are. That was really the beginning of that epiphany that life is not going to wait for you to get a good night sleep before you’re expected to live up to the potential that God gave you. 

JC: At the time I got my degree, I was working full-time, had kids, and I was the sheriff spokesperson. Sometimes I had to leave the classroom to take a call about a homicide, and without the flexibility of University of Phoenix, I never would have been able to complete my degree and rise up the ranks to where I am.  

IH: I was working and taking care of my mother, so I didn’t have the time to go through traditional education. University of Phoenix not only gave me an opportunity to earn my degree, but it also fast-tracked me into an environment where I was dealing with professionals. I could sit at the table of the city council and negotiate a budget, and know what a business plan is. 

MG: Getting my degree increased my confidence level and prepared me for the challenges that awaited me in terms of public policy. It also allowed a door to be opened where I could be a model for others who think they can’t get a four-year degree. Now I am able to say, “I can and I have, because I did.