Francisco Carrillo was a self-described knucklehead when he attended UCLA, so much so that he didn’t make it through school on his first attempt.
He took his education for granted the first time around, but when given a second chance to make good, he did, and now the “prodigal son” returns as Executive Director of Federal Relations for UCLA with a mission to promote his alma mater at the federal level and to advocate for higher education priorities in Washington, DC.
“My undergrad story is interesting,” Carrillo said with a weary smile. “I didn’t go the normal route. I actually got dismissed from school because my academic performance was suffering. I was very young and naive. But thankfully, I got back in.”
Enrolled or not, Carrillo has been a Bruin for as long as he can remember. He grew up in South Pasadena and both his parents graduated from UCLA. “I chose UCLA because I’ve always been a Bruin and would wear Bruin gear in high school, plus it was the best school I could get into. To be honest, I was fortunate to get in.” Carrillo started as an economics major, but he got “chewed up” during his initial college experience and flipped to political science. Four years later, it was UCLA Extension that allowed him to get back on track.
Carrillo joked that his father always ranted and raved about Congress, and political conversations helped bond father, who is a civil rights attorney, with son. “He was brainwashing me in high school,” he said with a laugh. “My dad would always talk about Congress and policy, but he was a lawyer and he was working within the judicial system. I thought the only way you could fix what he was trying to fix, was to fix the laws, so I wanted to go to D.C. It was a weird calling for me.”
Upon receiving a second chance, Carrillo graduated with a political science degree, and shortly after, landed an internship with U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi in Washington, D.C. through the help of the UCLA Career Center and the California State Society’s Bono-Capps Congressional Internship Program. She had just become the first woman Democratic Leader in Congress. “I was very lucky and got there right when she was sworn in as the first female leader,” he said. “It was inspiring to see how a woman could finally achieve the highest post in the Democratic Party, and I was there to be her foot soldier.”
The job was simple: answer the phone and direct calls. He moved up from staff assistant, to her scheduling assistant, and then to outreach advisor. When Pelosi was elected Speaker of the House, he wanted to work more on policy. So instead of staying with her office, he took a job on the House Appropriations Committee for the majority. “A lot of people were questioning whether I should leave the first woman Speaker’s office, but the House Appropriations experience gave me the most substantive experience on the Hill and it has served me tremendously in every job since.” While working on the Hill, he went to graduate school for Environmental Science and Policy at John Hopkins University.
After six years in Congress, Carrillo began to get homesick, so he landed a job in the D.C. office of former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, hoping to eventually transfer back to Los Angeles. Political winds shifted those plans, however, when President Barack Obama was elected into office. Carrillo decided to stay in D.C., and he took a job with the Department of the Interior, serving there for six years working for Cabinet Secretaries Ken Salazar and Sally Jewell. He worked the remainder of the Administration at the Department of Energy for Secretary Ernest Moniz. At both departments, he helped manage intergovernmental and external affairs, which served as the main point of contact between the agencies and governors, mayors, state and local officials, and stakeholder organizations.
His proudest accomplishment at the Department of the Interior was helping to create a competitive grant program for National Historic Sites that recognized underrepresented communities, and he also played a role in the President’s designation of the César Chávez and San Gabriel Mountains National Monuments in California. While at the Department of Energy (DOE), Carrillo helped launch the Mission Innovation initiative to accelerate research and development funding for clean energy, and worked with UCLA to host a roundtable on campus with the DOE Deputy Secretary.
When President Donald Trump was sworn in, Carrillo was no longer able to work in the Administration, as with all Obama appointees, but the timing happened to coincide perfectly with an opening back in Los Angeles and at UCLA. “A lot of people flagged this opening for me because they knew I was a die-hard Bruin,” he said. “When I’m on the East Coast, I’m only comfortable wearing something from UCLA and representing California.”
As a federal employee, Carrillo had always maintained relationships with his predecessor, Kim Kovacs, as well as with AVC Keith Parker. He was hired earlier this year and drove across country to come back home. “I see my role as using my experience and relationships in Washington to help my alma mater,” said Carrillo. “We have to rebrand this office in terms of how we support the campus and how we support the members of Congress and their policy priorities. We are constantly asking for things, whether funding or policy, but we really need to adapt to how we can support the members’ priorities and what resources we can bring to bear to support them. We have to bring the full weight of campus resources to support the members.”
So far so good, Carrillo said, noting a House Education Committee hearing in March that saw UCLA’s Vice Provost for Enrollment Management testify, and a successful visit by Chancellor Gene Block in April where he met with California’s newest U.S. Senator, Kamala Harris, and with the Republican Chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee as well as with several other California members. And just last month, Carrillo and the Government & Community Relations team hosted a briefing on the federal budget process for the campus community.
Carrillo hopes his story can be used as a positive example for the next generation of UCLA advocates, such as students who are energetic, but a little less certain about government. “Elections and politics are one thing, but they shouldn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth in terms of public service and public policy. There is a clear distinction, and the latter are honorable career paths. If someone like me could get kicked out of UCLA, get back in and graduate, and get to the highest levels of government, anyone can do it. You don’t have to be a policy wonk, or a super scientist, or researcher, just be a hard worker, persistent and be determined on what you want to accomplish.”
Carrillo says that advocates must not become cynical, and to remember that the machinations of this country are slow for a reason, but progress can be made. “I’m glad I went into the belly of the beast, because now I know how to get things done. And now I’m able to come back and use that experience to serve my alma mater.”