At 23 years old, CSUN alumna Clarissa Rojas ’18 (Journalism) is relatively new to Capitol Hill and the halls of power. Unlike her contemporaries and other recent college graduates, however, she has already vaulted right into a prominent position in Washington D.C. This fall, Rojas landed a job as communications director for Rep. Darren Soto (D-Florida).
So how did this young Matador climb so high, so fast? Rojas’ childhood and pursuit of education were a lesson in perseverance and determination. She grew up in poverty in the San Fernando Valley and spent five years living with her mother and brother in a domestic violence shelter. Family ties (and perhaps fate) led her to CSUN, where she blossomed and eventually became a rising star in public service.
“It’s crazy to think it all just happened so fast,” Rojas said.
From CSUN …
When Rojas was 4 years old, she fled with her mother and brother from an abusive household. They left everything behind. To this day, Rojas has never seen a baby picture of herself, because her mother left so quickly that she couldn’t collect family photos, Rojas said.
During her childhood, Rojas and her family of three lived in a domestic abuse shelter in Canoga Park. When she was 11, Rojas began working at a concession stand in East L.A. to earn money for the family. In high school, she worked multiple jobs — at a school day-care center, tutoring and babysitting.
Rojas was originally bound for college in Florida, but family circumstances changed her course. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer for a second time as Rojas neared the end of high school in Canoga Park.
Florida was supposed to be her ticket out. But her mother’s cancer diagnosis changed everything — Rojas decided to stick close to home, and CSUN was the place.
In her four years at the university beginning in 2014, she served as chief of staff and the senator for the Mike Curb College of Arts, Media, and Communication for Associated Students and joined the sorority Alpha Phi and became its vice president of finance. As in high school, she worked constantly to put herself through school and help support her family.
One day, while working the drive-thru window at a Northridge Chick-fil-A, she impressed a certain customer: Jennifer De Iuliis, executive assistant to CSUN Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Colin Donahue.
“I had a really good experience from a customer standpoint, as well as she was just very personable,” De Iuliis said.
In their conversation at the drive-thru, they discovered their CSUN connection. De Iuliis drove off, but called the restaurant to see if Rojas was interested in working in her office. She invited the journalism student to apply for a job on campus as a student assistant in the Division of Administration and Finance — and Rojas eagerly accepted. Rojas worked in the position for two years.
“It’s wonderful to see how [Rojas] spent her time at CSUN getting involved with different aspects of the student body, and really embracing the opportunity that she had here and being able to take that into these next-level opportunities,” De Iuliis said. “Sometimes, we have these doors that might get opened that we don’t even know [where] they’re going to lead.”
Said Rojas: “My experiences at CSUN were the best days of my life. I am so grateful for everything that I experienced. It allowed me to get more involved in politics because I was so intrigued by what was happening.”
… To D.C.
Rojas applied for and was selected for the CSUN in D.C. Internship — a program in the Department of Political Science (and open to all majors) where students live, work and learn in the nation’s capital. While there, Rojas had an internship with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute — a nonprofit organization providing leadership development programs and educational services to students from Hispanic backgrounds. From there, Rojas landed an internship in the office of Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif).
Rojas originally took on a role as a legislative intern, but her interest in communications and her journalism training from CSUN helped Rojas become indispensable to Barragán’s press secretary. Rojas helped prepare the congresswoman for interviews, did Spanish-language translation, edited video, built graphics and uploaded content to Barragán’s web and social media channels.
On Capitol Hill, where it’s common for congressional staffers to move jobs early and often as they gain experience, Rojas interviewed and landed an internship with Sen. Chuck Schumer’s (D-New York) office. But within 15 minutes of getting the internship, Rojas said, she was called into Barragán’s office — where she received a counteroffer to become Barragán’s next press assistant. Rojas accepted and later was elevated to press secretary.
Rojas said Barragán took a chance on her, showed her the ropes, and she is forever grateful for the boost the congresswoman provided her.
“Nanette was more than just a boss to me — she was my biggest mentor and role model,” Rojas said.
But after a year and a half in Barragán’s office, new opportunities arose, including the job as communications director for Soto. Rojas accepted the position and started in October.
“I would say the reason I was able to get so far so quickly is because when I went to my internship, I worked really hard,” Rojas said. “And the hardest-working person is always going to be the one that stands out. I didn’t care what was assigned to me as an intern. If I had to clean out the refrigerator, if I had to grab coffee, or go to a briefing, or if I had to write a press release, I did it. And I did it with a smile on my face, and I did the best job that I could do.”
The Present and Future
On a daily basis, Rojas is drafting press releases, crafting strategy, keeping informed on the issues impacting Soto’s district in Orlando and the country at large and coordinating the congressman’s press calendar and preparing him for interviews.
At 23 and not far removed from her college days, Rojas understands that her new position carries a high level of responsibility and prestige. There is plenty of time to climb higher — but California beckons.
“The more I work here, the more I realize that there is such a need in the San Fernando Valley, and I want to go back [one day]. I want to work in local politics — whether I’m working in somebody else’s office or I run for public office,” Rojas said. “I really want to help and advance my community, especially Canoga Park. There’s a huge Hispanic community and very low income. There’s so many great things that we can do in the San Fernando Valley.”