San Jose State University - Political Science
Nicole Fernandez began college looking at a handful of majors — from journalism to mass communications to social work. But she never quite shook the feeling she got her senior year of high school when she was watching the Bush/Gore presidential election of 2000. And, after trying on a few different majors, she decided to obtain her degree in political science. Now Nicole is a senior field representative to a member of the California State Assembly. In her job she does everything from drafting talking points to planning events to assisting constituents of California with state-run offices and projects. In addition, Nicole was a staffer to three different members of the Assembly so far throughout her career. And although her job allows for little sleep, she enjoys watching comedians at hole-in-the-wall comedy clubs with her best friend, listening to the pop sensibilities of Elton John and turning her TV on to watch "Law and Order: SVU" marathons on USA Network whenever she does have some down time.
Shine with every project and every responsibility assigned to you.
How did you discover your current job?
I stumbled into it, actually. I had an internship class my senior year of college. I took the course because I desperately needed to fulfill my full-time credit criteria to stay on my parent's health plan. I ended up taking an internship in an Assembly office located three blocks from campus. The internship was one of the smartest things I ever did in college. It allowed me to see this degree I was earning being used in the real world. At the end of my internship, which coincided with my graduation from college, I was offered an administrative position in the office of the Assemblymember where I had interned.
What has been your path so far to get you where you are today?
I took a government class my senior year of high school that really awakened my passion for politics. And lucky for me, the Bush/Gore presidential election of 2000 took place during the course of the government class. I was completely enthralled by the goings-on, watching every lawsuit, every recount, every hanging chad.
While I loved politics, I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted my degree in. I actually enrolled at SJSU as a mass communications major, and I spent some time as a journalism major and a social work major. It was eliminating all those other majors from my list that eventually led me to becoming a political science major.
I held a position with the first Assemblymember’s office for about a year. At that point, she was termed out, and I was recruited by another Assemblymember for an administrative position at his office. I was promoted to full-time community relations field representative not long after. Within three and a half years, after he was termed out, I was recruited for this third position as a senior field representative.
Was there any one situation that helped you along your way?
Not one particular situation … In general, though, networking is essential to doing well in this industry -- that is, walking up to someone, putting your hand out, smiling, and building a relationship based on that. Being forthright and having a good reputation are enough to open a lot of doors in government and community relations.
What is your typical day like? Does it ever change?
I love my job because it's never the same day twice. My position is not policy-based, as most would automatically assume; it is community relations. I am my elected official’s eyes and ears when he is in our State Capitol, working on legislation that will affect every Californian. I attend meetings with stakeholders, getting to know different aspects of the community he represents and seeing how our office could best be of service to our constituency. I could be assisting an elderly constituent with obtaining her registration from the Department of Motor Vehicles, attending a meeting about a domestic violence non-profit’s state funding, planning a community event, and writing talking points (a speech) for my boss throughout the course of one day. I support the Assemblymember by making sure he runs on time, has background for meetings, has access to anything he may need that day. That, and a plethora of other tasks, to make his day run just a bit smoother.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
At the risk of sounding completely hokey, I would say the best part of my job is restoring people's faith in government. All you hear about is wasteful government spending and how big government is getting. Some of the hardest-working, most professionally dedicated individuals I know are government workers. Our office assists constituents with most issues they may have with state government -- from DMV to Medi-Cal (California’s Medicaid program) to disputes with their health insurance companies. I am essentially a Jill of All Trades because I know little pieces about every department in state government. The thank you notes I’ve received from someone I have helped truly make my day.
What is the most challenging part?
I think two aspects are difficult for me: 1) Politics are very divisive. Many individuals I interact with on a daily basis have strong opinions about how things should work in the state of California. We have many phone calls and communications with angry individuals, unhappy with my boss’ job performance. 2) It can also be a challenge sometimes for me to keep my own politics out of the work that I do on a daily basis. I was not elected by a constituency, my boss was. As such, my political opinions should have nothing to do with what I do on his behalf.
What is the biggest personal sacrifice you have to make because of your job?
My job is not a 9-to-5 Monday through Friday position. I attend morning events, evening receptions and dinners, and work weekend events on behalf of my boss frequently. The biggest sacrifice is time spent with my family.
What is one lesson you've learned in your job that sticks with you?
Do not dismiss someone based on first impressions. Never discount anyone; they could be your next job referral or boss.
What do you feel is the biggest challenge for women today, particularly females in your industry?
It can be particularly challenging for females to get an entryway into staffer positions. Girls are raised to be quiet and cordial. Sometimes, you need to spotlight your accomplishments to advance your career. Never be afraid to sell yourself. Working connections to get into staffer positions can be difficult, only because there are so few positions available at any given time.
Who are your role models?
My mom -- she possesses patience, wisdom, diplomacy and kindness. I strive to be like her each and every day.
I’ve also been blessed to work with three female colleagues I see as key to my success. One was my internship coordinator, who eventually became my colleague at my first Assemblymember’s office. She was all business, but provided a prime example on how to be a good staffer -- always be prepared, always anticipate the Member’s needs, always answer questions honestly.
My second colleague was my manager at my second Assemblymember’s office - I view her as a mentor. She was involved in politics outside of our office, while keeping her eyes on the communities she represented. She had a passion not just for community outreach, but also policy work.
The third was a colleague in my second Assemblymember’s office -- she took an interest in me and really helped me with confidence issues I faced professionally.
Is there a quote or mantra that you live by?
“I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do." -Edward Everett Hale
"Get busy living or get busy dying." -Red, "The Shawshank Redemption"
What advice do you have for girls who want to be in your industry?
Get your foot in the door, bide your time, shine with every project and every responsibility assigned to you, and stay positive.