Gabriel Smith

Alumni | Pomona

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 “It was at the CSU that I started believing I could make a difference.”

Just five months after graduating from Cal Poly Pomona Gabriel Smith is on his way to becoming a leading advocate for accessible education in California.

After a long day of classes and student government on the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona campus, Gabriel Smith would make his usual trek home.

The commute to the other side of Pomona wasn't long, but it gave Smith enough time to think.

His mind would turn to what he'd achieved academically, but he often thought, too, about the impact he hoped to have once he'd earned his political science degree.  

As the city's buildings and manicured lawns faded in his rearview mirror, the streets of one of California's high-poverty communities — the place where Smith grew up and lived while at Cal Poly Pomona — took their place.

That drive motivated Smith to keep pushing ahead, he says, striving to be an example to his community that education — and specifically higher education — was the key to a better life.

"Cal Poly Pomona gave me hope and hope is a very powerful thing that can turn around someone's life," explains Smith, 26, who graduated from the CSU in June 2017.

"When I'd leave campus, I would go back to my community, where we have some of the lowest education attainment levels and highest crime rates," he recalls. "That really invigorated me. If I could rise out of that and get to Cal Poly Pomona, then there has to be a way to help others in the same situation as me."

The Value of a Degree

Growing up, Smith wasn't even sure he'd go to college. Certainly he had no interest in politics.

So, after finishing high school, he served in the U.S. Army for a couple of years. "I needed that change in environment. I wasn't the most disciplined individual," he says plainly. The military gave him skills he admired but believed he lacked: namely, commitment, service and leadership.

But he still wasn't dreaming big when it came to his future. "I thought [a degree] would get me a promotion and allow me to move up at work," says the former computer salesman. "The idea was to get a job and raise myself socioeconomically."

It was in a class at Citr​us College that an interest in politics was first sparked. "As I began to understand the system more and more, I learned that there were so many ways I could get involved," he says. "I learned the power of the political system."

When Smith transferred to Cal Poly Pomona in 2015, that initial spark was fueled into a passion to make a difference starting right on campus.

I never saw myself having the opportunity to work in the California Legislature to address the most vexing problems facing the state. This would have been unbelievable to me.  — Gabriel Smith

"I Could Make a Difference Being Me"

Numerous mentors at CPP helped Smith, he says, but one stands out: Julie Lappin, former director of governmental and external affairs. "Julie made an impact on my life by believing in me when I did not believe in myself," he says simply. "She was my go-to whenever adversity struck."

Lappin was also the one to encourage Smith to get involved in student government. Just one year after his arrival, the first-generation college student had become vice president of Cal Poly Pomona's Associated Students Incorporated (ASI), the campus' student government.

The young man who'd once felt he wasn't "college material" was gone. "Cal Poly Pomona made me believe in myself, which made me believe I, too, could contribute to the betterment of others."

"It was at Cal Poly Pomona that I started believing I could make a difference," he says. "I didn't need to be the President of the United States or a senator; I could make a difference being me." 

The Political is Personal 

As a student government leader, Smith learned the ins and outs of developing new policy and challenging the status quo, especially for the issues he's most committed to — affordable and accessible education and housing, and civil rights.

The very ones that could make the biggest difference in his hometown.

While at CPP, he also began volunteering and participating in public service projects. "The most impactful experience I've had was at the Boys & Girls Club in Pomona, where I spent a lot of time mentoring and hearing the dreams and hopes of the children," he says.

Working in the community helped prepare Smith for his job, as a political associate for the California Democratic Party in Sacramento; and in October 2017, he joined the highly regarded California Senate Fellows Program.

In less than three years, the newly minted CSU alumnus has already worked in political offices at the university, city, regional, state and nationwide level.

"I never saw myself having the opportunity to work in the California Legislature with our Senators to address the most vexing problems facing the state. This would have been unbelievable to me," he says emphatically. "The CSU is integral to California because it … gives everyone an opportunity, no matter what your background is. It provides a future that is attainable."

Smith wants to be sure more of the state's residents are able to access what he did, and he's ready to fight, too, for affordable health care and immigrant rights in California.

He knows that means a future in public service. "I definitely want a career in politics. Wherever I feel I can make the most change and impact on people — that is where I am going to be."

Update: Since this story has been written, Smith has gone on to earn his graduate certificate in Applied Public Policy from Sacramento State. He has also served as state parliamentarian for the California Young Democrats and is now a public affairs associate at Ortega Strategies Group, a firm specializing in public policy and ​public relations, and a legislative director at CalMutuals.


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