“It was at the CSU that I started believing I could make a difference.” Just five months after graduating from Cal Poly Pomona Gabriel Smith is on his way to becoming a leading advocate for accessible education in California. Page Content After a long day of classes and student government on the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona campus, Gabriel Smith would make his usual trek home.The commute to the other side of Pomona wasn't long, but it gave Smith enough time to think. His mind would turn to what he'd achieved academically, but he often thought, too, about the impact he hoped to have once he'd earned his political science degree. As the city's buildings and manicured lawns faded in his rearview mirror, the streets of one of California's high-poverty communities — the place where Smith grew up and lived while at Cal Poly Pomona — took their place.That drive motivated Smith to keep pushing ahead, he says, striving to be an example to his community that education — and specifically higher education — was the key to a better life. "Cal Poly Pomona gave me hope and hope is a very powerful thing that can turn around someone's life," explains Smith, 26, who graduated from the CSU in June 2017. "When I'd leave campus, I would go back to my community, where we have some of the lowest education attainment levels and highest crime rates," he recalls. "That really invigorated me. If I could rise out of that and get to Cal Poly Pomona, then there has to be a way to help others in the same situation as me."The Value of a DegreeGrowing up, Smith wasn't even sure he'd go to college. Certainly he had no interest in politics.So, after finishing high school, he served in the U.S. Army for a couple of years. "I needed that change in environment. I wasn't the most disciplined individual," he says plainly. The military gave him skills he admired but believed he lacked: namely, commitment, service and leadership. But he still wasn't dreaming big when it came to his future. "I thought [a degree] would get me a promotion and allow me to move up at work," says the former computer salesman. "The idea was to get a job and raise myself socioeconomically." It was in a class at Citrus College that an interest in politics was first sparked. "As I began to understand the system more and more, I learned that there were so many ways I could get involved," he says. "I learned the power of the political system."When Smith transferred to Cal Poly Pomona in 2015, that initial spark was fueled into a passion to make a difference — starting right on campus. I never saw myself having the opportunity to work in the California Legislature to address the most vexing problems facing the state. This would have been unbelievable to me.