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Alum Brings a Fresh Perspective to the Minnesota Capitol

June 29, 2020

When aspiring broadcast journalism student Jessica Oaxaca took her first political science course, she had no clue that she would end up working for a Minnesota state senator. “I was that kid that was always like, ‘Oh my gosh, I hate politics. Too complicated. I don't want to be part of it,’” Oaxaca says. “I just took a political science class to fill one of my requirements—and then there was no going back.”

Originally from Mexico City, Oaxaca moved to Marshall, Minnesota as a child and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2017. After graduation, she worked as a legislative assistant and in communication roles with Minnesota governor Tim Walz and lieutenant governor Peggy Flanagan’s election campaign. In March 2019, she became deputy press secretary in the governor’s office.

A New Path

Oaxaca acquired her first internship when she heard that Minnesota legislative representatives were coming to the University to look for new student interns. On a break between her classes, Oaxaca checked out the meeting. Originally, she was discouraged from applying because of her age. “The Senate [representatives] told me not to [apply] because they wanted upperclassmen and I was, like, ‘I'm still gonna do it,’” Oaxaca explains. “They took me on as a freshman, and it's the only reason I ended up in the governor's office.”

Being a student who enjoyed a challenge, Oaxaca attributes her success in both her academic and professional life to the professors she had. One of her favorite instructors is political science professor Andrew Karch, whose round-the-clock diligence allowed Oaxaca to balance work and school with better ease. “I do a lot of writing now in my job, and I think all those essays that I wrote for his class [helped]. It's all tied together,” Oaxaca says. She explains that while the Department of Political Science and its faculty have been really great resources as a whole, Karch made a particularly lasting impact. She emphasizes, “He was always so willing to sit down with me and talk through [my work].”

Overall, Oaxaca believes that a degree in political science enables students to view everyday issues. It allows for a different perspective, enabling them to easily synthesize possible solutions—which is exactly what she does every day.

As deputy press secretary, Oaxaca takes real-world problems that Minnesotans face and writes speeches for Governor Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan. “People always want to know what the governor's thinking and they want to know what his opinion is on something,” Oaxaca says. “[My job] is mixing the qualitative stuff, the stories that they hear, and then using that to connect it to the quantitative stuff.”

For example, Oaxaca has worked on issues such as racial disparities in education and how to access affordable healthcare and childcare. Additionally, she works with the press to deliver information that is comprehensible to the general public, allowing more community members to actively engage with state government and politics. Sometimes this requires community sessions where she accompanies Governor Walz and Lieutenant Governor Flanagan on road trips to different cities in Minnesota and connects with under-represented areas to ensure their voices are heard. “Every day is bananas,” Oaxaca says, “And you constantly think about all kinds of things you would never imagine thinking about.”

Bringing Voices Unheard

Although Oaxaca found challenges with both being a student and working a full-time job as a legislative assistant, she adds that the connections she made set her up for a lifelong career that she loves, and she wants to provide the same opportunities she had to other students. Specifically, she wants to provide them to students of color, whose barriers to education are a lot higher. “It's all about who you know,” Oaxaca says, “because [breaking into the political world is] so hard unless you know someone that's already in the system, which is usually older white men.”

Oaxaca has been fighting to get more young people of color involved in the political ecosphere, even offering to talk to and mentor anyone interested. “It was really tough for people to take me seriously,” Oaxaca admits. “Like, ‘Who's this young, brown woman that just started in politics?’”
 
She adds, “I would encourage other students of color that are looking to break into this world to know that their voices matter. We need more people of color in these systems. We need to have these perspectives.” Her tenacity has led to her becoming a successful government employee despite the hurdles she and other students like her face.

Shortly after Oaxaca was interviewed for this story, she took a position as the director of communications for the Minnesota state senate. “When I accepted the communications director role with the Senate DFL caucus, I didn’t imagine how quickly the world would change. If anything, it is a privilege now more than ever to work for the state of Minnesota to ensure the work we’re doing protects the health, safety, and economic security of Minnesotans.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student in Backpack. Meet the team.