Before being part of ASI leadership at Cal Poly Pomona, Gabriel Smith got a rude awakening in politics.
Smith (’17, political science) went to Washington, D.C., to work as an intern for Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-El Monte. He had a $300 Greyhound bus ticket, one suit and no place to live. He found a temporary home at a shelter that had an old-fashioned press and dry-cleaning system he used to keep his suit ready for work.
There he was, a graduate of Citrus College interning side by side with other students boasting Ivy League pedigrees. It was political boot camp for the Pomona native, who received first-hand lessons about the inner workings of the political process and how to talk to people from different demographics.
“I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence when I started that internship,” Smith said. “I didn’t come from the greatest educational pipeline. However, I really developed my confidence and learned that it doesn’t matter where you come from. What matters is the content of your character.”
Several years later, Smith served as Cal Poly Pomona’s ASI vice president, worked in President Soraya M. Coley’s office as a governmental affairs student assistant and will represent the CSU as the only student selected from the system for the California Senate Fellows program.
The highly competitive program, which is part of the Capitol Fellowship Programs, provides participants with a full-time paid internship in which they learn about the legislative process by working as staffer members in the California Senate. Fellows tackle a variety of tasks, ranging from researching and analyzing bills to responding to constituent inquires to crafting press releases and speeches. This year, 18 Senate fellows were selected nationwide. Smith will soon get assigned and start his post in November.
“I feel truly honored, and now I have an opportunity to learn more about the political process and be more involved in policy-making,” Smith said. “I hope this is a step in the direction of learning how the government can be a productive instrument for change and the restoration of hope.”
Smith didn’t always long for a career in politics.
“I hated politics,” he said. “I thought it was a broken system and about people with delusions of grandeur wearing nice clothing.”
When he took on that congressional fellowship, he saw the complicated nature of politics at the federal level, particularly with partisan gridlock. His interest in state and local issues then grew.
“I began to see state government as the laboratory for progressive policy development to address the vexing problems affecting our children, families and communities,” he said. “We can test solutions to issues on a smaller scale in state government, and that is a lot of my motivation for getting involved in the Capitol Fellows Programs.”
Smith grew up in Cal Poly Pomona’s backyard, but didn’t know at the time he would later call the campus home. Life was about survival for Smith, the only child of a single mother who worked three jobs. His father died when he was very young.
“We were really a team,” he said.
He attended schools in the more affluent Claremont Unified School District, which proved to be an adjustment.
“I struggled because I didn’t have the best clothes or vacation regularly like my peers,” he said. “I had to adapt to that environment. It helped me to look upward socioeconomically.”
After high school, Smith served two years in the U.S. Army. When he was discharged, he enrolled at Citrus College. It was there that his interest in politics blossomed. A teacher recommended that he apply for a congressional internship. He started out as the press secretary intern, writing media releases for Napolitano, as well as managing social media pages and doing strategic marketing and messaging.
Smith was later promoted to work on policy. He helped with research that would become the Mental Health in Schools Act, which provides mental health training for teachers. He also helped organize the Congressional Water Conference.
That is also where he met Julie Lappin, Cal Poly Pomona’s former director of governmental affairs, who would later serve as a mentor to Smith. He transferred in as a junior, and although he was coming to a new campus where he didn’t know anyone, his fellow students trusted him to take on leadership roles, he said.
He was elected ASI vice president in 2016 and in the latter part of his senior year, he worked with Lappin in governmental relations.
Lappin, who now serves as the chief of staff for the university president at Cal State San Bernardino, said that Smith was “motivated, professional and inquisitive.”
“He had many relationships already established with legislators when he started in the office, so it was a very easy transition,” she said. “He was able to think outside the box to suggest solutions.”
Smith helped with the planning, coordination and implementation of legislative briefings, meetings and events, Lappin said. He also attended advocacy days in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., researched issues and completed analyses.
Lappin said Smith has the passion to succeed in politics.
“He is motivated, takes initiative and has the energy to follow things through,” she said. “He also brings his perspective of being one of the underrepresented students on campus – a veteran, a first-generation college student, African American, raised by a single mother, worked to put himself through college, transfer student from a community college. The list goes on.”
Smith, who runs a small political consulting company, doesn’t start his fellowship for a few more months, but he already is in Sacramento working for the California Democratic Party. He plans to pursue a master’s in public policy and a juris doctorate, and wants to focus on issues such as criminal justice reform healthcare and education.
“I really see this as my journey towards a career in public policy or public service,” he said of the fellowship program. “I feel like a hometown leader going to the Capitol. I am not just going as a fellow. I am going as a representative of the community that embodies and stands for everything I believe in.”