Generation Innovation: Sergio Venegas Marin’s Quest to Influence Public Policy

By Andrea Guzman

In 2010, Sergio Venegas Marin, an ambitious student at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, was aiming to transfer. He looked at eight universities, and settled on UC Berkeley because of its Global Poverty & Practice (GPP) minor.

Born and raised in Cadiz, Spain, Venegas said the GPP minor attracted him because poverty and social problems were part of his everyday life. The youngest of three children, he was raised by a single mother who worked several part-time jobs.  Venegas said it seemed unfair that his mother had to work 20-hour days sometimes in order to provide basic necessities for her children.

“It was complicated to make a living,” Venegas, now 25, said. “It was difficult and it didn’t feel right that it was that difficult.”

In Spain, Venegas’ family and many of his neighbors relied on social assistance programs to make ends meet. But when more conservative political parties took office, the programs were cut, school dropout rates increased, and many youth became involved with crime and drugs. Cadiz, a southern port city that has long struggled with high unemployment, is now experiencing rates of 40 percent. Venegas said his old friends from Cadiz are living “completely different lives”—marked by low job prospects and economic struggle.

When he was 17, Venegas’ life changed. He followed his mom and dad to Sacramento, California, where his father’s family lived. There, he learned English and enrolled in community college.

At Cal, he majored in economics and took as many classes with a development focus as possible. He said the GPP minor enabled him to channel his passion for social and economic justice. He found like-minded fellow students—people with similar experiences and interests and who sought to use their education to reduce poverty and inequality in the United States and around the world.

After graduating in 2012, Venegas searched for jobs and discovered that many social sector positions were unpaid. Frustrated and worried about money, he applied to investment banking and private sector jobs. But at the interviews, he realized those jobs were not for him. Seeing the lack of minority professionals reminded him of the social problems that need to be addressed. He decided to turn down a $75,000 job offer, and worked part-time as a campus host at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and as a part-time instructional assistant at his community college in Sacramento.

“I was very frustrated, because I felt every opportunity in the development field was open only to people who didn’t need to be paid, who already had an economic advantage,” said Venegas.

But he soon landed a job as an analyst at a consulting firm called Mission Analytics, which evaluates and provides technical assistance to government social welfare programs. Venegas not only found a way to influence public policy through the job, he opened the door to fellow GPP students to do the same. Two other members of the Mission Analytics team are GPP alums. He said the firm chose to hire the GPP students because of their unique skills and education.

“I think it’s the ability of looking at a problem from different standpoints,” he said. “GPP students have a way of mixing everything they have learned. They are able to care about the methods but also the end goal we want to accomplish.”

In the future, Venegas intends to get a Master’s in Public Policy and return to Spain to help create a more participatory democracy and a stronger welfare state. He advises students still in the GPP minor to get involved in their communities and pursue their passions before and after graduation.

“Instead of wasting your time and just wanting to graduate, you should get involved,” Venegas said. “Being passionate prepares you to take on the world.”

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