VCU alumna's journey to the Virginia capitol
Throughout her time at VCU, Aja worked with several local campaigns and political groups where she honed her skills and made connections that led to her latest position, as a policy assistant to Governor Ralph Northam. She also served as a contributing writer for both the Commonwealth Times and Her Campus. Upon graduation, Aja became the political strategy chair for the Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Steering Committee. Currently, she serves as the secretary for the Portsmouth Democratic Committee and a board member of the Friends of the Portsmouth Juvenile Court.
We were excited to chat with her about her passions and career success.
What are you passionate about?
I am passionate about working toward the betterment of the community. Growing up, I was able to see my parents and sister in their respective fields always finding a way to think about what they could do to make the lives of people better. It has shown me that no matter what you do, you can always do for others. That is what I love about what I have been able to find in politics. As I continue to learn and find my specialization, I hope to take my knowledge and goodwill to work for the people ultimately in whatever that capacity may be.
Describe your career path since graduating from VCU.
While I was a student at VCU, I had the pleasure of serving as an intern for State Senator L. Louise Lucas. Senator Lucas represents the 18th Senatorial District, a very large district that includes my hometown of Portsmouth. I was able to intern with her my junior and senior year, and was beyond grateful when I got an offer to work with her as her legislative assistant upon graduating. This opportunity meant a lot to me and was a role I felt that I grew into after gaining that intern experience. My time with her was nothing short of incredible and though I started to consider other interests of mine, I had no intent on leaving her anytime soon.
As we near the end of our current gubernatorial administration with an election in November 2021, summer 2020 is the time when candidates begin to announce running. It was these announcements that sparked my interest in simply having a vague goal in mind that I would love to work for a governor someday, working in policy to further find my true niche. Through the friendships I have formed, genuine connections I have been able to make and close to four years of experience, my hard work was recognized. I had a friend reach out to me, letting me know a position was opening up and he thought I would be great for it. This was something I did not think would come to me, let alone work out at this time. A few months later, I was hired as Governor Northam's policy assistant.
What does it mean to be a policy assistant? What is your day-to-day like?
As a policy assistant, I do a lot of floating and organizing. I work directly alongside seven others on Northam’s policy team, all of them oversee and/or specialize in specific policy areas and I assist everyone. I am able to help out on different policy and legislative initiatives in whatever capacity I am requested and overall keep the team's work organized for all of us to stay on the same page in the midst of being so busy.
Day-to-day for me right now as we are in session is keeping track of legislation in the general assembly as it pertains to the administration, keeping those outside of the office in the loop properly and heavily assisting anyone on my team who needs a hand as everyone is helping everyone during these next couple of months.
What are some policies that you are particularly proud to have had a hand in?
The governor has two initiatives that the administration will continuously be working on during this current session that have already been extremely interesting to read up on and learn. Those two things being marijuana legalization and abolishing the death penalty in Virginia.
What has been your favorite part of being a policy assistant to Governor Northam thus far?
There are so many great things about this position. The atmosphere is probably my favorite part. Seeing the work that is put into every little detail and now being able to work with others to assist in these efforts for the greater good of our Commonwealth is something I still cannot fathom I am doing. Who you work for also makes that difference. The governor is so genuine, working for someone like him who is so thoughtful and has the best intentions in everything he does makes this job easy even when it gets tough.
How did your experience at VCU inform your career?
My favorite thing about the Department of Political Science at VCU was the diversity—diversity in the students, professors and fields in which these professors came from. It was refreshing to see the various avenues politics can take you and feeling that passion in the room when I was being taught. It was this energy that allowed me to grow and think bigger. I gained a special level of confidence from this great university and every day I am so excited for what can come next.
What advice would you offer a student who wants to pursue a career in government?
- Experience is key and you have to do your research. There are so many ways to get into politics and so many areas that you just would not even think of. Take an opportunity and grow with it or grow from it.
- Do not be afraid to ask for an opportunity. The worst anyone can tell you is no and if anything you just formed a new connection that could open you up to different things and people. When I decided I wanted to pursue politics, I asked for my internship with Senator Lucas. I just reached out to her legislative assistant at the time and he said yes. Go after that experience. Always ask!
- Use your alumni network. This is something I did not do and wish I did before coming in! During my time working and interning, I met so many VCU alumni in the field and they are always so willing to be of any help. VCU is truly a great support system. If you see a VCU alumni listed on a website/LinkedIn, reach out.