Monday, May 30, 2005

UT student leader turns lobbying into legislative success

This is so cool. Omar Ochoa lobbied legislators so that they now have a place at the state's boards of regents. Fingers crossed that Perry won't veto this legislation.

By Laura Heinauer
Monday, May 30, 2005

He has been in office less than two months, but Omar Ochoa already has been able to accomplish more than most University of Texas Student Government presidents.

In the past week, he has lobbied lawmakers to advance legislation that would add students to the state's boards of regents. Student government presidents have been championing the idea for the past 30 years.

On Sunday, the measure passed both houses of the Legislature and was awaiting the governor's signature.

"I'm elated to have this historic victory for students," said Ochoa, who spent Memorial Day weekend lobbying legislators.

Politics is nothing new for Ochoa, whose father was mayor of Edinburg, a town of about 50,000 near the South Texas border with Mexico.

"I was wearing 'Vote for Joe' T-shirts when I was still in diapers," he said, referring to shirts he wore for his father, Joe Ochoa.

That kid in diapers now spends his days rubbing elbows with powerful state politicians and top University of Texas brass.

He was in a meeting discussing zoning and safety issues in UT's West Campus on Wednesday with Austin Mayor Will Wynn when he got the call informing him that the student regent measure, which had looked as though it could fail, had been attached to other pieces of legislation and had been passed in the Texas House.

"We were all so excited, we forgot where we were for a minute," Ochoa said.

One thing Ochoa hasn't forgotten is where he comes from. The day after his meeting with Wynn, he was on his way to Edinburg to speak at his high school's honor society banquet.

He said he'd never forget when about 30 people from his hometown, clad in Vote for Omar buttons and armed with stacks of fliers, came to Austin during his election to help with his campaign. Or when he won, and his hometown county judge and state legislators showed up to watch him be sworn in.

"I come from a very supportive culture, and my family, my community was really terrific," he said.

Ochoa is one of only a few Hispanics to serve as UT Student Government president, and he is well aware that the number of Hispanics going to college isn't keeping up with the population increase.

Having grown up in the Rio Grande Valley, which has one of the lowest college enrollment rates in the state, Ochoa said he knew of several students who could have gone to UT but didn't because they couldn't afford it.

So he has been working to ensure grant money for low-income and first-generation college students. He also plans to make several trips to the Valley during his yearlong term to encourage students that they, too, can go to college.

"I want to be a role model to people from the Valley, to show you can come here to one of the best universities in the country and be successful," he said.

As for his success in the Legislature, Ochoa attributes it to his willingness to compromise, his efforts to build a coalition with other student government representatives throughout the state and a dogged determination to keep all lawmakers with legislation affecting the student agenda in the loop.

He has worked closely with outgoing UT Student Government President Brent Chaney and student government leaders from other colleges to support the installation of nonvoting student regents appointed by the governor.

Ochoa, who faced criticism from students who wanted the student regents to have a vote, said the majority of states that have a student on their boards of regents, including California, started with a nonvoting student regent.

Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, said Ochoa is an energetic young man with a future in politics.

He should know. He also was UT Student Government president. Unfortunately for Alonzo, he was elected the same year that students voted to abolish student government in the late 1970s.

"It's like big, huge, in my opinion — bigger than being a state representative," Alonzo said. "It's the one thing, of all my accomplishments, that I am still the most proud of."

Ochoa says he's just trying to do the best he can.

"It's an overwhelming job, long hours, crappy pay, people criticizing you," he said. "But what motivates me is I've seen how it has worked in the past, and I think we have a good plan for making it work better."; 445-3694

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