Long before she studied at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, María de Jesús López – who goes by “MJ” – built a successful career in advertising. She worked with the world’s biggest brands such as General Motors, Dr. Pepper and Sony Pictures. She helped Fortune 500 companies reach diverse audiences through Spanish-language commercials and partnerships with African American TV networks.
Yet MJ, who grew up in an underserved neighborhood in Chicago, wanted to give back to the community. So she took a leap of faith seven years ago and switched careers to the nonprofit sector. Now, she’s about to graduate from the USC Price School and plans to transition to local government.
“It had been something that I had been thinking about and ruminating about since quite early in my career,” MJ said of the career change. “But it’s hard when all you’ve done – all your experience, your degree, all you know – is a certain industry. I knew it’d be challenging, but I had to take a leap of faith.”
She decided to attend the USC Price School in 2020 because of the highly ranked Master of Public Administration (MPA) program and the Trojan network of alumni. Since switching careers, she’s helped young people from disadvantaged communities develop critical soft skills and find jobs. MJ has led student organizations that discuss policies affecting people of color and the LGBTQ community. She was also a public policy fellow for Los Angeles County, where she helped plan and implement workforce programs in the nation’s most populous county.
“I wanted to get an MPA because I want to make a bigger impact,” MJ said. “I would love to work in government so that I can start working on these types of programs – not just youth workforce development but also economic and community development.”
For the past year, MJ has worked at USC Annenberg’s Center for Third Space Thinking, where she mentors high school students to help them become better presenters and problem-solvers. She’ll continue to work there post-graduation. Previously, she spent five years at Catholic Charities of Los Angeles. There, she trained young people on job readiness skills such as communication and time management and helped them secure internships with local employers.
“I think her kindness stands out because she really wants to get to know people as individuals and deeply connect as much as possible,” said Karla Barajas, who was MJ’s academic advisor. “Something that she’s been able to maintain throughout her different roles is that engagement – with the youth in particular – and empowering people to give back to their own communities and help each other.”
MJ’s interest in youth workforce development can be traced to her childhood. As a teenager in Chicago, MJ got summer jobs as a newsletter writer for a nonprofit, a 4th-grade tutor and as an apprentice artist painting a portrait of a children’s choir. These experiences not only provided fun and meaningful work, but also wages to buy clothes and school supplies.
“It gave me some independence,” MJ said. “I think it’s really important to be doing something in the summer when you’re not in school, because if not, then you’re going to get into trouble. It also teaches you the value of a dollar.”
While at the USC Price School, MJ became president of the Students of Color and Allies Policy Forum, as well as Rainbow Price Community. MJ, who is Latinx and a first-generation U.S.-born and college graduate, joined these organizations during a time of heightened attention to issues facing BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people. She was also elected as a Graduate Student Government (GSG) Senator where she served as a liaison between Price students and organizations, and GSG.
“It’s been a journey, but it’s been a great one,” MJ said. “I’m excited to graduate. I’m not sad, but it’s bittersweet because I do want to continue to be part of the USC community. I’m sure I will, but it’s kind of like letting go, too.”