Leading Policy Change for Low-Income People

Nicole Rodriguez

“I’ve understood for as long as I can remember how good policy decisions can really change people’s lives — and how bad decisions can really affect them, too,” says Nicole Rodriguez, MPP’14, the new president of the Heller Alumni Association board.

She was raised in Boston by a single mom who worked two jobs. The family relied on public benefits, and when it came time for Rodriguez to go to college, she used federal Pell Grants to help fund her studies at Villanova University.

“I saw my mom’s struggle. It was a heavy burden for her, figuring out how to be a mom and an employee, feeling guilty about choosing work over family. We, as a society, can do better,” she says. That’s why Rodriguez chose to study public policy, with a focus on work-family issues.

She was drawn to Heller because of MPP program leaders Janet Boguslaw and Michael Doonan, PhD’02, who have supported her professionally and personally from the moment she applied through today.

“I’ve never experienced that at any other higher education institution, the support that the staff gives the students, and for that I will always be grateful. I know their door is always open,” she says.

After graduating from Heller, Rodriguez got a fellowship with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where she was placed with the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. At the think tank, she worked as the lead researcher on policy campaigns for earned sick time, paid family and medical leave, and the $15 minimum wage — all of which were successful.

“When I was writing my policy reports and advocating at the Massachusetts State House, I had a jump-start because I had worked on these things in grad school,” she says. “I actually used the reports I had written. It was a perfect transition into my professional policy life.”

After a couple of years, she was hired at Community Labor United as a senior researcher. One of her key campaigns was a public-good coalition, which pulls together four sectors — education, housing, health and human services, and transportation — that have seen the worst of privatization.

This fall, Rodriguez stepped into a new role as research director for New Jersey Policy Perspective, a statewide policy think tank focusing on strategies that impact low-income people.

“As a Boston ‘lifer,’ I’m sad to leave but excited about the new opportunity,” she says.

Moving away from Massachusetts doesn’t diminish her Heller connection, however. As president of the Alumni Association board, Rodriguez notes, “My goal is to expand the diversity of voices that are represented, not only on the board but throughout the alumni community. As the first Latina president and a second-generation immigrant, I see the world differently than people who may not have experienced certain hardships. I know I can offer that perspective as we more meaningfully engage alumni around the world.”

Cover of Winter 2019 Heller Magazine

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 Heller magazine