Darcel Sanders

From her new job at the State Capitol Building in Sacramento, Darcel Sanders now jokes that she was first drawn to Dominican in 2005 by the prospect of playing volleyball and the sight of deer wandering on campus.

Her career path, however, soon took her in so many directions one would need to follow a proverbial bouncing ball just to keep up with the honors political science and psychology double major. Sanders played basketball as well as volleyball and submerged herself in campus activities. She was a Resident Advisor, ASDU Community Outreach Director, Peer Adviser, Research Assistant, president of both Pi Sigma Alpha and Phi Alpha Delta, a member of Psi Chi and the Psychology Club, and founded the Dominican Political Science Association. She attended the LeaderShape Institute in Champaign, Ill., volunteered at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research when Dominican hosted it in 2007 and was selected as a Washington, D.C. intern for the Panetta Institute of Public Policy. 

And that’s just the beginning. Sanders, selected to the Teach For America program in 2009 prior to graduating, last month came back to Dominican as a California Senate Fellow. She is the lead education staffer for State Senator Carol Liu (D-25), and encourages students at Dominican to follow her lead.

“It’s not just about the opportunities here, but about the volume of opportunities … It’s unique to be in a place where you can do all that I did; people really worked hard to make it work for me,” said Sanders, who spoke at Dominican’s Capital Fellows Program student session on Jan. 24. “That has been the biggest difference for me: to have that diversity of experience and have those skills carry over into the work I’ve done since graduation.”

Sanders never seriously envisioned a career in politics. At the age of six she told her mother in Turlock that she wanted to be a children’s rights attorney.

Though Sanders hasn’t given up on the idea of someday going to law school, she is focused on her work with Sen. Liu, who was recently named Chair of the Senate Education Committee. Since November, Sanders has been a legislative aide for such things as early childhood education and K-12 issues. She hopes to parlay that opportunity into a permanent full-time position.

“Things are coming together; it’s really worked out for me,” she says.

Ironically, Sanders’ big break came when she decided to quit volleyball. Dr. Gigi Gokcek, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and International Studies, believed Sanders had the credentials to become a Panetta Institute intern, but that meant that she would have to sacrifice her senior season of volleyball to work in Washington, D.C.

Sanders has no regrets. She worked on the reauthorization of “No Child Left Behind” while interning for Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA13) and was witness to Barack Obama’s historic election in 2008. On Election Night, she gravitated with crowds surrounding the White House to celebrate the United States’ first African-American president.

“That was the biggest moment of my Dominican career. Winning a (California Pacific) conference championship by beating Menlo College and Holy Names is a close second,” Sanders says.

On Inauguration Day in 2009, Sanders was back on the Dominican campus when, while in Caleruega Dining Hall, she received an email acknowledging that she had been accepted into the Teach For America program. Once Sanders graduated from Dominican that May with honors in political science and psychology, TFA placed her in a teaching position at Frick Middle School in Oakland. She then simultaneously earned her teaching credential and began working toward completing her Master’s degree in Education at Alliant International University. In 2011, she was named a Bay Area Sue Lehmann Excellence in Teaching finalist by TFA.

“She is by far one of the most accomplished individuals I have ever met,” says Gokcek, who worked closely with Sanders in many courses at Dominican including Introduction to International Relations and Research Methods. “Her hard work ethic and dedication made her an extraordinary undergraduate student.”

Sanders also found volleyball again. She accepted a job as interim head volleyball coach at Mills College and had such a positive impact on the team that she was named “Coach of the Year” by the NCAA Association of Division III Independents in the sport in 2011.

During the spring of 2012, with the help of recommendations from Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Teach For America-Bay Area Executive Director Emily Bobel and Dr. Gokcek, Sanders was one of 64 college graduates out of close to 1,000 applicants to be selected to the Capital Fellows Program for the 2012-2013 term. The program is considered one of the oldest and most distinguished service-learning programs in the country and has been ranked as one of the top 10 internships in the nation for the last three years consecutively.

Sanders became the first Dominican graduate to receive such an honor.

“This is a very ambitious young woman who is likely to fulfill many of her future goals … In my mind I think of Darcel as another Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Condoleezza Rice and every other female leader our country has been privileged to know through service,” Gokcek says. “She is an excellent role model for all past, present and future students at our university.”

Sanders is planning her next career move now. Ideally, she would prefer to remain on Senator Liu’s staff in Sacramento.

 “I’m blessed to have so many opportunities,” she says.

When asked about running for office one day, Sanders says, “Even in high school the common thread for me was being involved in some kind of community service or social justice element. Now that I’m entering my late 20s and thinking about where life will take me, the most important thing for me is that I want to do the right thing and make a difference. You don’t necessarily have to be an elected official to do that … Right now policy and nonprofit work is where my heart is.”