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Onetime college dropout forges education career, wins elections

Tamika L’Ecluse says she entered public arena to give voice to the voiceless


Tamika L'Ecluse leaning against a wall with her arms crossed and smiling with greenery behind her.

Tamika L'Ecluse

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June 30, 2023

All public affairs students study public affairs. Many seek public-sector jobs after graduation. A few step into the political arena.

Tamika L’Ecluse, an Arizona State University alum who graduated from Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, is one of those few.

Sacramento, California, resident L’Ecluse earned an online Bachelor of Science in public service and public policy in May from the School of Public Affairs. It was the latest stop on a path that began with wanting to better her own life and continued with working to effect change for others.

In fact, L’Ecluse plans to run for reelection in November 2024 to the American River Flood Control District board, with hopes of a future seat on the Sacramento City Council.

From education to public policy and leadership

Growing up, improving one’s situation in life was an aspiration L'Ecluse's mother was never quite able to achieve.

L’Ecluse recalls her mother struggled constantly, seemingly always taking classes, trying to enroll in a four-year university, “to be able to buy a house, all those American dream things,” L’Ecluse said. “And she never got there.”

But she, too, encountered financial obstacles. After graduating from high school, L'Ecluse had the opportunity to attend community college for what seems to be — by today's standards — an affordable $19 per credit.

L’Ecluse said more financial aid would have been available had she been starting college today. But at the time, there was none, not even to pay $19 a credit.

Things appeared to start looking up when a friend’s mother paid for her first semester’s tuition.

“But when I had my car stolen, I dropped out. I saw this pattern that I saw my mom in,” she said. “It was really hard. I decided to just work. I had two, three jobs at a time, in a lot of bars and restaurants. I had my own apartment and car, but something inside me said I wanted something more.”

L’Ecluse tried community college again, studying early childhood education and thinking about a career as a sign language interpreter for children. She received a teaching certificate and spent 20 years as a Montessori school teacher. She married and had children who attended public schools, which piqued her interest in public education. She began to take a stronger interest in public policy. Voters elected her to a seat on a local school board.

“I was really interested in public policy from a community level,” she said. “Neighborhood cleanup, no more liquor stores, more fresh food stores and child care opportunities. Our kids didn’t have the access to the kind of school where I taught. I looked at local policy here in Sacramento that I could influence.”

She managed a local Urban League program to open an intake center for families who she said needed a whole-community approach: housing, food, jobs and child care.

“Those issues opened my eyes to how community development and public policy shaped the lives of my neighbors and people I really cared about,” L’Ecluse said.

She signed up for online classes that didn’t exist when she attended community college the first time. While L'Ecluse was working on a paper in a sociology class, Minneapolis resident George Floyd, a Black man, died at the hands of local police officers.

“All I could think about was people dying in our streets, and I needed to do something about that. So, I dropped that class with the understanding I wouldn’t get to transfer to a four-year university, but had enough credits to get my Associate of Arts degree in social and behavioral health.”

L’Ecluse, now 44, had pursued that degree for more than 20 years, she said, but it didn’t feel as if it was enough. She learned about the ASU Online bachelor’s degree programs and, with encouragement from her husband, enrolled and received financial assistance. Her focus changed from education to public policy.

“I knew I would not go back to teaching,” she said.

She was elected to the regional flood control board, where she said she learned the communities in which she grew up became flooded more often than more affluent neighborhoods.

“I joined the board to give a voice for those people who did not have one,” she said. “When a major weather event reaches communities, the most vulnerable and under-resourced neighborhoods are least resilient and take longer to recover. Investing more resources in these communities makes a safer city for everyone.

“I’m really thankful that I’ve had these last two and a half or three years to hone in on what kind of leader I want to be, how I want to show up for my community, my constituents and myself,” she said. “I think it has taught me that giving myself the grace and time to figure out what I wanted to be next doesn’t have to be scary, because there is something that can fit you, your availability, your capacity, your challenges.“

Read on to learn more about L’Ecluse’s ASU journey.

Note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: One reason I chose ASU was because I had a friend who graduated from there a couple of years earlier. She loved her experience, and it gave her the flexibility to graduate with two degrees while working and raising her son.

When COVID impacted the U.S. and civil unrest grew, I found myself looking to fill a void that haunted me for decades. After I earned my associate degree in May 2020, I started exploring hybrid or online bachelor’s programs since most schools and universities were closed in California. I was ready to try and fill the void. I remembered my friend’s experience at ASU, and I thought the worst that could happen is I’d simply apply somewhere else if I didn’t get in. To my surprise, not only was I accepted, but most of my community college credits also transferred. ASU made enrollment and finding the right program easy for me.

Q: Which professor(s) taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I don’t think any single professor taught me the most important lesson, but I took their feedback, suggestions and encouragement seriously. That feedback and guidance gave me more confidence in my writing and navigating group dynamics. Many taught me not to be so hard on myself and do my best.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in your online coursework or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I learned that ethics on a global scale is more complicated than I thought. My major required multiple ethics courses and diving deeper into ethical dilemmas, many (of) which aren’t black-and-white problems with simple solutions. Some dilemmas challenged and changed some of my perspectives.

My perspective changed about my ability to read and produce a lot of material within a few weeks. I had to be very organized, focused on my time and take copious notes. I also used tools (ASU offers) such as success coaching and writing lab resources. I couldn’t have kept up without relying on these tools.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to someone considering running for public office?

A: My best advice would be to be your authentic, fabulous self, because you are enough. Ask for help. Take care of your body and soul. Fill yourself with nourishment and positivity, and surround yourself with good people, as often as possible.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?

A: In my spare time, I like to make pottery and take photos. I tend to keep very busy, and these activities force me to slow down, be intentional and focus on the moment.

Q: What is your life motto in one sentence?

A: When you give them roots, they find their wings.

When I was a teacher, I started Roots to Wings, a consulting business, to help schools with curriculum development, licensing and teacher/parent training in positive discipline for ages 3 to 12. Often, I think I am still finding and grounding my roots. With every accomplishment or major challenge overcome, I see an opportunity to soar higher. I believe roots to wings is a lifelong journey.

The School of Public Affairs is part of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

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