As his patient settled into the chair, Luis Niño retrieved the tools of his trade. In 2017, he was still an optician—a job he took after unexpectedly leaving college six years earlier. He knew it wouldn’t be his final career but he wasn’t sure where to go next.
He began to fit a new set of glasses onto his patient’s face and struck up a conversation to break the ice. The pair exchanged pleasantries—the benign kind you have with any stranger. This patient was not unlike many others he saw every day. The optometrist’s office where he worked was two blocks from the Indiana Statehouse, attracting busy government workers.
The conversations usually turned to careers and politics, sparking a new interest for Luis in how people were making a difference through public policy. While Luis helped his patients improve their vision, they had helped him see his future more clearly.
Luis hadn’t been in a college classroom in six years. He was a sports management major when he left IUPUI in 2011. Like so many students, money and his interest in his major had dwindled. He didn’t want to take out more loans until he had a solid plan, but always knew he would come back; 2017 was the year it would happen.
“I had a conversation with a patient who was running for an elected position,” Luis recalls. “That person influenced my decision in wanting to work in government and politics, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready.”
His fiancé gave him the final boost of confidence to return and he enrolled in O’Neill’s Civic Leadership major.
“All of my classes provided a wealth of knowledge and my instructors truly helped me grow as a student and an individual,” he says.
They also helped guide him toward unique opportunities within the O’Neill School, including internships at the Indiana Statehouse and research opportunities with the IU Public Policy Institute.
He worked as a researcher with PPI, focusing on issues relating to social equity as well as economic development. He worked closely with Drew Klacik, a senior policy analyst at PPI who also taught a course at the O’Neill School.
“What I love about O’Neill is the connection between research and the classroom,” Luis says. “It allowed me to talk to Drew outside of class and develop a mentoring relationship. He really helped guide me into the right lanes.”
Another O’Neill staff member also helped guide Luis into his future career. Advisor and instructor James Eckerty encouraged him to apply for an internship at the Indiana Statehouse. He started as a fiscal analyst intern for the Ways and Means Committee during the 2019 legislative session.
“I learned a lot about how the biennial budget affects so many agencies statewide,” Luis says. “The research skills I learned at PPI and O’Neill helped me pull together research that was eventually put into legislation that became law.”
Luis worked hard as an intern. His supervisor pushed him to apply for a scholarship from Verizon Communications. Each year, one intern from each of the four chambers receives the $3,000 award to help cover educational expenses.
Luis was one of the four recipients. But when Speaker of the House Brian Bosma called his name to receive the award, Luis was nowhere to be found.
“I was sick that day,” he laughs. “It was the first time I had called off during the entire session. I didn’t know they were going to announce it.”
Luis watched the whole thing play out live because, even though he was homesick, he was still watching the activity on the Statehouse floor from his computer.
That commitment opened other doors for Luis. After his internship ended, he was offered a summer internship, which led to another opportunity: applying for a full-time position as a legislative assistant.
“I had worked with so many members of our caucus,” he says. “They saw the work I was doing and were really appreciative of it. They went to bat for me when I was trying to get the job.”
In building his network, Luis was also building his career. He now serves as a legislative assistant for three state representatives, making sure they attend events, stay connected with constituents, and keep up-to-date on important issues.
Luis won’t earn his degree until May 2020 but will soon have his own intern to manage.
“I want them to remember this for the rest of their lives,” he says. “I want them to take away skills they can apply in their professional careers.”
He says he’s passionate about providing help to a new round of interns because of the experience he had in the halls of the Statehouse and through O’Neill.
“Looking back at my life, it’s a world of change,” Luis says with a smile. “I’m just so much better off now. O’Neill provided me with an opportunity to find my own way and develop it through courses and mentorship from instructors. I’m so fortunate to have found my path.”