NORTH ANDOVER — When MaryRose Mazzola was in eighth grade, her parents drove her to Howard Dean's presidential campaign rallies and took her around town to put up campaign signs. But the Mazzolas weren't campaigning for Dean; their 14-year-old daughter was.
Now 21, Mazzola has been working for political campaigns ever since. She will graduate on May 20 from Merrimack College and has deferred her acceptance to a master's program at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute. Why? So she can continue as campaign manager for state Senator Barry Finegold's reelection bid in November, a role she's juggled with a full-time class load since March.
“It's a rare and invaluable opportunity,” Mazzola said. “I definitely wanted to take advantage of it with this gift Senator Finegold has given me.”
In a leadership position often reserved for staffers twice her age, Mazzola has spent her final spring semester working 35 to 40 hours a week on Finegold's campaign while completing her course requirements. And as graduation celebrations end, she'll continue to recruit volunteers, collect signatures, and plan events and community outreach opportunities for Andover Democrat.
Mazzola, who lives in Chelmsford, said her inspiration for public service came from her grandfather, William Hogan, a former chancellor of University of Massachusetts Lowell who helped to revitalize the city during his 25-year tenure.
“The big strides that Lowell saw in the 1990s were my firsthand experience of seeing state and local politics working,” she said.
She was hooked from then on. After Dean's campaign, she went on to hold signs, make phone calls, and report to campaign field directors from voting polls for US Senator John Kerry, Governor Deval Patrick, Representative Niki Tsongas, and President Obama in their respective elections.
And that was high school. In college, Mazzola, a political science and French major with a minor in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim relations, has learned to approach public policy with an international perspective. “Knowledge of other languages and religions is the best way to begin to understand other people,” she said.
Mark Allman, associate professor in the department of religious and theological studies at Merrimack, has taught Mazzola in several classes and sees himself as her “unofficial adviser.”
“There's a significant number of students who are more politically involved, but a whole bunch who are politically apathetic and ignorant,” he said. “MaryRose is a tireless workhorse; she's not your average college kid at all.”
For instance, Mazzola has already seen the positive impact legislation can have. During the summer of 2009, she focused on domestic violence issues during an internship with the Massachusetts Caucus of Women Legislators at the State House, and she hopes to keep the issue at the forefront.
“There's a tendency for domestic violence funding for shelters and hotlines to be one of the first things to get cut when you see the recession we've been going through,” Mazzola said. “But domestic violence increases exponentially during times of economic hardship because you feel it first in the home.”
She believes that contributing at the legislative level is the best chance of making effective changes and helping people. But Mazzola isn't focused only on issues like domestic violence. In 2002, she founded Gifts for Nana, an ovarian cancer research fund at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington in memory of her grandmother. Three years later, she petitioned Senator Edward M. Kennedy for Johanna's Law, an educational campaign promoting regular testing for gynecological cancers. Kennedy ultimately cosponsored the bill, which passed unanimously in Congress in 2007.
“There definitely has been progress made,” she said. “And I feel like that progress is due to women knowing specifically female issues and really pushing for them.”
Fellow Merrimack senior Meg Saltzman, 22, of Stoneham, has worked with Mazzola on campus campaigns against sexual and dating violence, but knows her as someone who loves to travel and spend time with friends.
“For all that she does, she's just a very sweet girl and incredibly approachable,” she said. “She's very down to earth.”
Last summer, Mazzola worked for Kerry as one of two press interns and quickly impressed the veteran senator.
“MaryRose is one of those kids you just knew was driven,” Kerry said in an e-mail. “She was a quick study, talented writer, and most of all you knew she'd do whatever it took to get the job done.”
Though she said she loves being in Washington, she liked the idea of staying closer to home to work for Finegold, and hasn't ruled out making a run of her own one day. First, though, she wants to increase her knowledge of policy and local issues. She believes it's important to start with the issues and the people she knows well and move on from there.
“Campaigning is just the most exciting thing in the world,” she said. “After two summers away, it's going to be really nice to connect back with my community.”
With so much experience already, does Mazzola have what it takes to navigate the political landscape? Allman thinks so and sees a big future for his former student, one he'd be willing to support himself.
“I'd happily work on the Senator Mazzola campaign as a steppingstone to the President Mazzola campaign,” he said. “She’s that good.”