Women’s History Month Spotlight: Higher Education Champion Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin

 “When we look at the state legislature we have less than 24% women. That number is the lowest level it has been in the past decade – which is rather appalling for a progressive state like California.”

As the daughter of immigrants and the first in her family to attend college, Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin is no stranger to adversity.  This former all-American swimmer has learned to navigate rough waters with determination, poise, and a tenacity that has earned her admiration in the traditionally male-dominated spheres that she has spent a lifetime daring to compete in.

She attributes much of her success to her work ethic, positive attitude, and competitive spirit.  In high school, Irwin learned that she had an aptitude for math but stumbled her senior year after enrolling in a challenging calculus class.  While she contemplated quitting, her father insisted that she continue, recognizing that her hard work would validate the many sacrifices her family made in order to support their daughter in pursuing her college dreams.  Irwin would go on to attend and graduate from the University of California, San Diego with a Bachelor of Science in systems engineering.

After college, Irwin jumped at the opportunity to work as an engineer at John’s Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab and Teledyne Systems.  Of more than 30 engineers in her department, only two were women.  Undeterred, Irwin embraced the chance to put her intellect to good use while defying the “old boys club” mentality that had previously existed. She continued infiltrating male-dominated fields throughout her career as she entered politics.

After ten years on the Thousand Oaks City Council and two terms as Mayor, in 2014 Irwin was elected to the State Assembly. Irwin explained what led to her decision to run for the legislature, “When we look at the state legislature we have less than 24% women. That number is the lowest level it’s been in the past decade – which is rather appalling for a progressive state like California. I think it’s very important that women’s voices are heard, and I ran to add my voice to issues that are important to women.  We must have more women in powerful offices where they can change policy and attitudes.”

Today, Irwin is doing just that in her position on the Assembly Higher Education committee.  While she’s been fortunate to have many accomplishments in the State Assembly, she is proudest of her efforts to reform California Community Colleges’ broken remedial education system.  Irwin reflected, “Being placed into remedial education changes the trajectory of a student’s life. There are, perhaps, no other education practices that have the potential to affect as many lives and impact student’s confidence and the state’s economy.  This made it easy for me to advocate for big, bold changes.”

Working alongside The Campaign for College Opportunity, California Edge Coalition, and California Acceleration Project in 2015, Irwin would successfully spearhead efforts to secure $60 million to redesign remedial education through the Basic Skills and Student Outcomes Transformation (BSSOT) Program. Under this program, California Community Colleges have an opportunity to receive financial support, professional development and the technical assistance they need to adopt or scale up, promising high-impact practices in the delivery of remedial education instruction.

In 2017, Irwin would again propose ambitious student-centered community college reform, with the introduction of AB 705, legislation sponsored by the Campaign for College Opportunity to require community colleges to use high school performance as a factor in determining course placement for college-level math and English.

Irwin introduced the law because more than 75% of California’s community college students were being assessed and placed into pre-college level courses annually, despite evidence that many of them could be successful in college-level courses.  Irwin called the historic legislation, “a game changer. [It is] one of the most impactful pieces of policy that I could support and one that was evidence-based and data-driven.”

When asked about her collaboration with The Campaign for College Opportunity to enact AB 705, Irwin reflected, “The Campaign is a group of advocates focused on improving student success. The organization has been passionate and data-informed advocates for students. The Campaign had an incredible game plan for explaining why it was important to change the paradigm. They identified the problem, brought stakeholders together, came-up with a solution and then advocated alongside students to the very end.”

With the passage of AB 705, Irwin has cemented her higher education legacy. Wherever she travels across the state individuals comment on the transformative nature of her groundbreaking policy.  She argues, “We can’t afford to fail, so I’ll be watching AB 705’s implementation closely.”

Irwin has also been a legislative champion for women. She was recently sworn in as an appointee on the Commission on the Status of Women and Girls. As the judge administered her oath, she teared up. Later she explained that during the ceremony she was reflecting upon her journey and all the work that remains.  There are many women who have inspired and shaped Jacqui Irwin’s remarkable career, and she now seeks to encourage more women to pursue their education and public service.  “I see education as a great equalizer. Women leaders understand this,” she concludes.

Thank you, Assemblymember Irwin for being a Shero to us all!

By Jessie Ryan, Executive Vice President of The Campaign for College Opportunity