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ASU Sacramento Scholars learn about government through hands-on experience

Writing documents, assisting constituents give interns insight into California State Assembly, state agencies, prosecutors’ offices


Sacramento Scholars, spring 2024, ASU, California State Capitol

ASU Sacramento Scholars join State Assemblyman Josh Lowenthal in a conference room at the California State Capitol. From left to right: Puneet Mangat, John Otair, Adam Khan, Jennifer Tran, Lowenthal, Karen Alvarez, Trinity Good, Brian Lizarraga and Robert Ochoa. Photo by Alex Mitchell

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April 16, 2024

Brian Lizarraga of Sacramento, California, is in his first year as an undergraduate at Arizona State University.

Being an out-of-state student, he didn’t have to leave his hometown, the state capital, to earn six hours of credit from interning at the State Assembly. He works in an assembly member’s office, writing fact sheets for bills and hearing requests from constituents.

Lizarraga, 18, a public service and public policy major in the School of Public Affairs, is one of eight ASU students in the spring 2024 cohort of the university’s Sacramento Scholarship program. Six, including Lizarraga, are in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions and two are in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The scholars intern in the offices of legislators, state agencies and prosecutors, learning from the inside how government works in the nation’s most populous state while earning a stipend.

Some of the scholars are online learners from the northern part of the state where Sacramento is located, while others are students from ASU’s Tempe and Phoenix campuses, said Watts College senior student services coordinator Carlos Tavares. A few scholars plan to move to California after graduation.

“If it were a country, California would have the fifth-largest economy in the world,” Tavares said. “A lot of students see California and its government as a sort of junior step toward the federal government.”

Tavares administers the program with Watts College Assistant Director for Academic Affairs Ashley Funneman. The administrative team also includes Watts College senior and Sacramento Scholars alum Jose Rivas, as well as Jessica Lee, an academic advisor of internships at The College. The program, which began in 2022, originated in the ASU President’s Office under Vice President of Enterprise Planning Christian Osmeña. Today, Senior Associate Dean Joanna Lucio oversees the program, now based at the Watts College.

Lucio, Lizarraga’s professor in his fall Public Service and American Democracy class, sent him an email inviting him to apply for the scholarship.

“Many of our Sun Devils are either from or based out of California, and the Sacramento Scholarship program gives these students an opportunity to serve in their home state and obtain invaluable experiences for future employment opportunities,” said Lucio, who noted that Osmeña was instrumental in the program’s success and transfer to the Watts College. “Watts College is grateful for the opportunity to administer this incredible program that reflects ASU’s commitment to social embeddedness.”

First-year students with internships are uncommon, but Lizarraga said he applied to gain experience in government as soon as possible.

Lizarraga works in the office of State Assembly member Josh Lowenthal, whose district includes the Los Angeles suburbs of Signal Hill and Carson. Each day is different, he said.

“I write fact sheets for bills, answer the phone and talk to constituents. I go to meetings with lobbyists,” Lizarraga said. “It’s a great staff and the assembly member is a real down-to-earth guy.”

Tavares noted that all of the scholars do hands-on work.

“They’re gaining valuable firsthand experience that will help the students with their long-term careers. It’s nothing like interns going to get coffee,” Tavares said.

Some college students may fail to see how most legislation affects them, but Lizarraga pointed to one bill dealing with a serious issue that younger voters may care about.

Lizarraga said the assembly is considering three different pieces of legislation attempting to thwart drink spiking, the practice of surreptitiously adding a harmful substance to a bar patron’s beverage. To hinder the practice, one bill would require bars to place lids on drinks.

“I like researching and talking with staff and other people in the office. We deal with an array of different topics,” said Lizarraga, who is also taking 12 additional credits online at ASU and has a part-time job.

He called his exposure to the inner workings of government at such a young age “an amazing experience.”

“If you’re interested in politics, when you’re here, you are making significant effects on laws,” he said. “We’re very involved.”

Tavares said another Sacramento Scholar John Otair, a public service and public policy major, is working on five bills in the office of assembly member Cottie Petrie-Norris. Otair’s name is on all five proposals as a co-author.

The spring cohort wraps up its work May 4. The program just selected its summer cohort of six students — three from the Watts College and three from The College — Tavares said.

Summer cohort students will complete a series of workshops about writing resumes and cover letters, polishing interview skills and demonstrating good workplace behavior.

“They get a sort of crash course in professionalism,” Tavares said.

In addition to Lizarraga and Otair, the spring cohort includes:

  • Robert Ochoa, a public service and public policy (emergency management and homeland security) major, in the office of California state Sen. Robert Archuleta.
  • Karen Alvarez, a criminology and criminal justice major, at the Sacramento County Office of Emergency Services.
  • Adam Khan, a public service and public policy major, in the office of State Assembly member Tom Lackey.
  • Trinity Good, a criminology and criminal justice major, in the office of State Assembly member Reggie Jones-Sawyer.
  • Puneet Mangat and Jennifer Tran, both political science majors, in the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office.

Students interested in applying for the spring 2025 cohort may request information at sacramentoscholars@asu.edu.

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