A passion for advocacy
High school experiences led Nini Wu, ’23 political science, to pursue a future in
Although Iris “Nini” Wu was born and raised in Norman, Oklahoma, she was familiar with Irvine before she officially became an Anteater. Growing up, her family visited Irvine frequently. So while most of her friends from high school ended up attending their hometown postsecondary institution, the University of Oklahoma, Wu took the opportunity to break out of the bubble she was raised in and forge a new path.
“It was a huge change moving from Oklahoma to California to start at UCI. I have no close family in Orange County, so it was different not having a support system during that huge life change,” she says. “I was lucky that I found a support system almost immediately in my freshman dorm. California is way more fast paced than Oklahoma, so adapting to that was a challenge, but I’ve learned to love it.”
A catalyst for change
When Wu was a junior in high school, the Parkland school shooting occurred. This tragedy and the subsequent debate about shootings and school safety hit her hard; she could see how a similar tragedy could happen in her home state, given its loose gun restrictions.
“I had never been politically oriented, but when the Parkland shooting happened, it hit close to home because the victims were around my age,” she says. She organized her school’s first walkout.
“It was daunting because guns are such a taboo topic in Oklahoma, and people tend to become defensive when challenged about guns,” she says.
The move was her first foray into politics, but it wouldn’t be her last.
Soon, other issues - including teacher compensation and classroom resources - further fueled her passion for change.
“A few months after Parkland, Oklahoma experienced the largest teacher walkout in state history,” she says. “Our teachers were demanding increased funding for public education and a living wage. Oklahoma currently still ranks one of the lowest in public education.”
Wu joined her teachers at the state capitol building in solidarity.
“We didn't have school for two weeks, and while I stood at the Capitol alongside my teachers, I grew frustrated that our elected representatives refused to listen to their constituents,” she says.
I had always been academically driven and focused on getting my degree, but I have seen the other opportunities that UCI has to offer aside from rigorous academics. I'm proud of myself for getting involved in different activities, especially coming from a different state. Four years flies by in the blink of an eye.
The experiences stuck with her. When she arrived on campus as a bio major intent on following a traditional path in the sciences to medicine or another STEM oriented profession, she soon switched to political science to learn more about how the government influences people’s lives. And she’s never looked back.
Last summer, encouraged by her favorite political science professor, Matthew Beckmann, Wu applied and was accepted into the UCDC program. She secured an internship with EMILYs List, a PAC that helps elect Democratic women candidates who support reproductive rights. Her time there happened at a pivotal point that coincided with the Supreme Court Ruling on the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, revoking the constitutional right to abortion.
“It was so fulfilling working for EMILYs List after the Dobbs decision. I accepted the position after the draft opinion was leaked, and I felt the most certain I had ever been about making a career decision that big because I would be jumping into incredibly important work at the heart of reproductive rights, which is so important to not only me but millions of people across the country,” Wu says.
When she returned to campus, she served as the ASUCI external vice president where she has advocated at the local, state, and federal levels of government for UCI students. One of her main goals has been to ensure that young people are included and respected in spaces where decisions are being made about them. She also helped create Students Demand Action, a nonpartisan organization to prevent gun violence, following through on a promise she made in high school to do her part.
Wu has also been involved in the Orange County Young Democrats, where she was the lead student organizer for the AOC in OC rally where Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) rallied young voters to get out the vote just weeks before the midterm elections. Wu worked with Ocasio-Cortez’s advance team and other speakers and organizers on logistics for the event. Representative Katie Porter’s team even asked Wu to be the emcee for the rally.
“Nini is amazing in many ways - a great student, a creative thinker, a thoughtful writer - but one thing that makes her stand out is how she makes teamwork both productive and rewarding,” her mentor, Beckmann, says. “In my class about Presidential Decision-Making, students were set into working groups to help the president decide how best to handle a lost military satellite. There, as everywhere, Nini was not just well prepared and hard-working; she was also encouraging, collaborative, and effective as a vital member of a great team.”
A wide open future
When Wu left home for Irvine, she had every intention of bringing her newfound knowledge and skills back to Oklahoma. But through her time at UCI, she’s fallen in love with California and the opportunities the campus has provided. Now, she’s not so sure the OK state is where she sees her next steps happening.
As she prepares to graduate, she plans to take a year off from school and explore the possibility of law school. And she’s incredibly grateful for the experiences - both inside the classroom and out - that UCI opened for her.
“I had always been academically driven and focused on getting my degree, but I have seen the other opportunities that UCI has to offer aside from rigorous academics,” she says. “I'm proud of myself for getting involved in different activities, especially coming from a different state. Four years flies by in the blink of an eye.”
With her plans still somewhat in flux, her mentor has no doubt that she’ll find her way and make a difference.
“I do not know exactly where Nini will end up, but I do know she will thrive, and I cannot wait to celebrate her success,” Beckmann says.
- Adriana Maestas for UCI Social Sciences