fb-pixel Skip to main content

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s friends in Boston recall her drive and dedication

During the 2011 Boston Marathon, from left: Raul Fernandez, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Lauren Stewart and Jacqueline Scanlan (formerly Jacqueline Chang). Raul Fernandez

In the wake of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking congressional primary win over a longtime incumbent in New York, people in Boston recalled her strong work ethic and dedication to helping people over the years.

The 28-year-old Ocasio-Cortez, a Bronx native, spent several of her formative years in Boston. She graduated from Boston University in 2011 and worked in US Senator Edward M. Kennedy's office.

"She's really had her mind and her heart set on improving the lives of people that live in communities like ours," said Raul Fernandez, a BU professor who worked with Ocasio-Cortez when she was a student ambassador in the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground.

One of the main things Fernandez remembers about Ocasio-Cortez at BU is her ability to listen.

"She was always up for a good debate, absolutely, but not before hearing someone else," said Fernandez, who was the assistant director of the center at the time. "I think that really served her well in undergrad; I think it's gonna serve her even better now that's she the Democratic nominee for Congress."


Ocasio-Cortez defeated longtime Representative Joseph Crowley in the Democratic congressional primary in New York Tuesday night, winning 57.5 percent of the vote. Crowley, whose district includes parts of the Bronx and Queens, has been in Congress since 1999 and had not seen opposition in a primary in 14 years.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Mark Lennihan/Associated Press/Associated Press

The upset win, which quickly spread across social media and caught the attention of the country, was seen as a major challenge to the Democratic political establishment because Ocasio-Cortez ran a largely grass- roots campaign and was outspent by an 18-1 margin, according to the Associated Press. If Ocasio-Cortez wins the general election in the heavily blue district, she would be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

Fernandez said she hasn't always had aspirations of holding political office, but she followed politics closely and had a passion for giving back and helping those around her. Fernandez said before the election, Ocasio-Cortez texted him and said that "it all happened so fast."


"She answered the call," he said, adding that people who know her are "collectively beaming with pride. There's something that people see in her specifically."

Julian Jensen, a fellow BU alum who worked with Ocasio-Cortez in the Howard Thurman Center, said she is "tack sharp" but also quite empathetic.

"She's a warm person," he said. "She takes her time to listen to everyone she comes across and meets."

Jensen said she was known as a social justice advocate on campus.

She has "always been fighting for the right groups of people . . . always the people who need their voices to be heard," he said.

Many drew comparisons between Tuesday's election and the local congressional race between US Representative Michael Capuano and Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who — like Ocasio-Cortez — is a younger woman of color challenging a longtime incumbent in a large urban area.

"Vote her in next, Massachusetts," Ocasio-Cortez wrote in a tweet about Pressley, after her win.

At BU, Ocasio-Cortez was president of Alianza Latina, BU's largest Latin American student organization. She also worked in Kennedy's office from 2008-2009.

Sarah Sullivan, who was in Ocasio-Cortez's graduating class, also said she was "deeply rooted in social justice issues" at BU. Back when Ocasio-Cortez went by the nickname "Sandy," she had a reputation for being involved and motivated, Sullivan said.

"So many people would talk about Sandy and how great she was," she said. "People would be like, 'You have to talk to her, she's awesome.' "


When BU's Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore was first introduced to Ocasio-Cortez in 2007, a friend called her "the smartest person that she knew," he said.

"I quickly found out that she was the smartest person that I certainly knew as well," Elmore said.

Elmore, who said Ocasio-Cortez embodies "radical empathy," referred to her as a good friend, a leader, and a listener.

"Maybe her time has come," he said. "Maybe she takes the mantle of leadership for a new generation of people in this country."

Ocasio-Cortez and Sullivan were both student speakers at BU's Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance in 2011. Sullivan remembers Ocasio-Cortez's speech as an example of her ability to encourage those around her.

"How can we be great?" Ocasio-Cortez asked her fellow students that day, according to BU's student newspaper The Daily Free Press. "The first step is a choice. King made a conscious decision. Ask yourself, today, how will you be great? In this moment, how am I great?"

Sullivan, who also works in politics, said voters have been desperate for leadership, and Ocasio-Cortez delivers.

"There's no denying when you watch her [campaign] video that she's a deeply inspiring person," she said, "and I feel like people really gravitated toward her leadership and hope.

Igor Lukes, a BU international relations professor, recalls teaching Ocasio-Cortez in his class "Power and Legitimacy" in 2010. She received great grades, he said.


"I do remember with complete clarity . . . that she was an outstanding student," Lukes said.

Since college, she has worked as an educational director for the National Hispanic Institute, which said it was "proud" of her win and the way she ran. She was also an organizer on Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign. Ocasio-Cortez has also held more blue-collar jobs, including bartending.

"She really gets the issues. She understands it, she's lived it," Fernandez said. "She is rising at the perfect time."

When thinking about Ocasio-Cortez and her time in Boston, Lukes considered the proverb: Success has many fathers; failure is an orphan.

"I can imagine," Lukes said, "that many of us at Boston University now feel like fathers or mothers of that great upset in New York."

J.D. Capelouto can be reached at jd.capelouto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jdcapelouto.