Experience Preferred: Council aide put off law school for real-world education in “policy, process, and politics”

Stephanie Bocanegra looks comfortable in the sunny, award-studded office of City Councilman Enrique Barrera, who has loaned the space to his aide for an afternoon appointment. In the female politician’s uniform of sleek black pantsuit brightened with a slice of citrus-green top, Bocanegra is a visibly good fit for City Hall, with its large cast of attractive young people with ambitions in government.

As a member of the District 6 council member’s staff, she represents him at meetings, contributes to a newsletter, produces a television show (District 6 Horizons with Councilman Enrique M. Barrera) and takes calls from constituents with complaints about what’s wrong and ideas to make things better. “I love communicating with people,” Bocanegra says, “of all ages, cultures and conditions.”

Two things in her own background helped get her this job – beyond her previous experience in another city department and her degree in economics from St. Mary’s University. One was a mistake, the other was a tragedy. If her life had gone according to Plan A, she’ll tell you, she wouldn’t even be here. After graduating from college, Bocanegra went out to Oregon to visit her first-choice law school – and chose to go home instead.

“So, you’ll be pre-K to JD,” the campus tour guide said casually, meaning that Bocanegra would be starting law school without a break in her education. “What kind of lawyer do you want to be?” Bocanegra froze. “I couldn’t answer that question,” she says. She had applied to Lewis and Clark University in Portland because of the school’s environmental-law program. But she hadn’t actually thought about what it would be like to be a lawyer, much less what kind she wanted to be.

“I had achieved my goals,” she said. “I graduated from high school. I went to St. Mary’s. I took the LSATs. I graduated. When I walked across that stage (to pick up my diploma), I knew I had made it, even though there were numerous times I had wanted to give up.”

Bocanegra had been trained to keep moving forward, no matter what happens. When a friend disappointed her at age 12, she says, “My mother taught me that losses are part of life, that sometimes the only thing you can depend on is that you’re going to be there for yourself.” As the child of teachers who became school principals in the Edgewood School District – her father, Richard Bocanegra, is now the district’s superintendent – she also had learned to value education. After her mother, Elida, died in a car accident, Bocanegra was back at Taft High School within a few days. “I finished my junior year, my senior year, went through prom and graduation, telling myself, ‘All I have to do is get through today.'”

The one-day, one-goal-at-a-time strategy worked for her through a bachelor’s degree in economics from St. Mary’s University and seemed about to propel her through law school. “No one in my family had ever done that,” she says. Accepted at five schools, she chose the one farthest from home – and realized she wasn’t ready to leave. “I had never really accepted my mother’s death,” she says. “I wasn’t through grieving.” Bocanegra decided to defer admission for a year and went home to San Antonio.

“It was one of my defining moments as a young adult,” she says, “and one of the hardest things I ever had to do.” Her close-knit family – including her father, brother and aunt – was concerned, to say the least. “We’re very traditional,” she says. “Everybody stays here (in San Antonio).”

After summer school in Austria and internships in Washington, D.C., and Costa Rica, she says, some family members had hoped she’d decide to stay home after graduation. “Since my junior year, they’d been hearing about my plans. They’d seen me working endlessly on law school applications.” Getting her family to feel comfortable with her decision to leave home for law school “had taken a lot of lobbying,” she says. “Now they were wondering what I was doing. They kept asking, ‘Are you sure?'”

The family’s next message was clear: “You’d better start working.” An Edgewood contact told Bocanegra about the city’s newly funded Youth Opportunity Program, where she was hired as a youth specialist, working with at-risk teens and young adults. Though her experience of growing up as one of two children of happily married professionals may have put some distance between her and her young clients, she says, “All youth have challenges. I let them know from the start that I would treat them with respect. The young adults I was dealing with had experienced true hardship. I had always had food, clothes and a home, but I had experienced heartbreak, too. Telling them about my mother helped break down some of the barriers.”

Bocanegra liked the idea of giving something back to her community, helping young people plan for better futures. Her parents, after all, had chosen to teach in the Edgewood district, near where they had been reared. “Edgewood was my other home,” she says. “My grandmother lived there, my parents worked there.”

At the age of 21, Bocanegra became a role model to young women, ages 16-22, to whom she taught a course called Survival Skills for Women. Many of her clients “couldn’t see beyond ‘my street,’ ‘my neighborhood.’ They had never given themselves permission to have any kind of a dream.” As an instructor, she taught basic life skills (applying for jobs, finding housing and child care) and encouraged the young women in her classes to set goals. “Everybody has different goals and everybody can be successful,” says Bocanegra. “That might mean going back to school for a GED and even on to college for an associate’s degree. Or it might be a more short-term goal, like getting to work on time or coming home by 8 o’clock to spend more time with your family.”

After three years in the youth program, where she picked up some administrative experience – acting as liaison with other agencies, supervising interns, serving on committees – Bocanegra heard about the job in the council office of District 6. “I wanted to learn more about how city government works, beyond my own department,” she says. Before she started working in Barrera’s office, she shared a few misgivings with her friends. What if the people in her new office all spoke a different work-language, dressed differently, didn’t accept her? “I didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “I had to make an adjustment.” Fortunately, her co-workers were receptive and helpful; her experience with “everyday people” came in handy in dealing with constituents.

“Stephanie has continually demonstrated an interest in not only identifying the problems facing San Antonio but also in developing solutions to those problems,” says Barrera. “There is no question that Stephanie’s extensive experience in working with the community, coupled with her educational background, will amount to success in her future endeavors.” Committed young people like her, he says, “represent our city’s greatest hope as we strive to address the issues that will face San Antonio as it continues to grow.”

For personal growth, Bocanegra enrolled part-time at the downtown campus of the University of Texas at San Antonio for a master’s degree program in public administration (MPA), which she describes as “something like an MBA for the public sector.” Planning to reapply to law school, she says, “I asked myself, ‘What do I have to offer from these years after college?'” To her real-world experience in the “policy, process and politics” of city government, she wanted to add proof of her continued interest in academic theory. Since summer 2002, Bocanegra has taken two courses a semester, three nights a week, with study time on the weekends. Other nights, she’s in the downtown UTSA library or attending meetings for Councilman Barrera. Most of her weekdays last from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

“Other women always tell me, ‘Do it while you can, before you have a family,'” she says. “It’s still difficult. I don’t have kids yet, but I do have a family – my father, my brother, my little nephew who wants me to come to his soccer games.” Bocanegra remembers “tagging along (as a child) to classes with my mother when she was getting her master’s degree. I have to remind myself that my parents were married when they were in college and had kids when they were in graduate school. Then I tell myself, if they could do it with all those added responsibilities, I should be able to do it, too.”

Her Plan B calls for starting law school – for sure, this time – in fall 2005. She’ll apply again to Lewis and Clark, as well as St. Mary’s and a few others. “I don’t take anything for granted,” Bocanegra says, but she feels she is an even better candidate for admission the second time around. She hopes to prepare herself for a future “supporting elected officials, helping them with issues,” though she doesn’t rule out running for office herself. After her experience in city government, she says, “I have a better understanding of the way government works. What we do here is problem-solving. It’s an important skill to be able to come up with a happy medium, a solution that may not make people with different interests completely happy but is a compromise everyone can live with.”

This time, she says, she is ready to go wherever her next move takes her. “I’d like to travel and see what’s going on in other places,” she says, “but I’d like to come back to San Antonio. I’m interested in building community, whether it’s part of my work or as a citizen volunteering.”

A few months ago, Bocanegra acquired another new skill, one that doesn’t necessarily come naturally to a native South Texan. On a ski trip with a friend, she tried snowboarding. During her first two runs, she says, “I kept falling down and getting up again, and I asked myself, ‘Why did I want to do this?’ The third time, it was a little better, and when I was able to make it all the way downhill without falling, I had such a sense of accomplishment.”

It reminds Bocanegra of something her mother told her many years ago. “I’d be worried about something in school, and say, ‘What if I fail?'” she says. “And she’d say, ‘That doesn’t matter. If you have to take a course five times, take it until you pass. If you don’t understand something automatically, study. Ask questions. Keep trying, and one day, you will understand.'”

Author: Paula Allen

Photographer: Liz Garza Williams

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