It was past dinnertime, but the day was far from over for Allison Lim, a chief of staff in the California State Assembly. With the rest of the staff gone for the day, she could now focus on reading and preparing all the documents she had assigned herself to review. At 12:30 a.m., she finally put down the highlighter and turned off her computer. In just a few hours, she’d be back. Most importantly, she was ready.
“I’m the type who doesn’t like to scramble to finish things at the last minute. So if I have something due Wednesday evening, I want to make sure it's done by Tuesday, so the next day is a little bit freer for the unexpected,” Lim says. “One thing that’s certain with my job is that things will come up.”
Lim, a 2015 graduate of UCI’s School of Social Sciences, is the second youngest chief of staff in the California state Capitol and one of only a few Asian Pacific Islander women chiefs. She manages a seven-member staff on behalf of Assemblymember Alex Lee, who was elected in November 2020 to represent California’s 25th Assembly District. He is the youngest state legislator and the first openly bisexual person elected to the California legislature.
As a chief of staff, Lim is empowered with daily opportunities to apply valuable lessons from her undergraduate career at UCI, where she graduated magna cum laude with a double major in political science and sociology. After specializing in law and comparative politics at UCI, she now has a hands-on role in California’s legislative process. On any given day, she attends committee hearings and works on legislation for which she can brief and advise Assemblymember Lee.
“Having a diversity of viewpoints creates robust discussion, and that’s what we need out of a representative democracy,” Lim says. “For instance, I haven’t really seen that many young Asian women in positions where they had a seat at the table and were able to make their voice heard, especially in politics. As a chief of staff now, I know that my thoughts and opinions will be seriously considered.”
Lim met Lee when they were in their early 20s and both working as legislative staff in Sacramento. There, they collaborated on the board of directors of the nonpartisan Asian Pacific Islander Capitol Association, a nonprofit organization. As a 23-year-old, Lee told Lim that he intended to run for office one day and that he wanted her to be his chief of staff.
“I thought that sounded great,” Lim says. “But I thought it would be something that happened in our 30s or 40s. As it turned out, two years later he said, ‘OK, I'm running.’”
Lim became Lee’s campaign manager in November 2019, after she studied Chinese language and literature for a year at National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei, Taiwan. Lee’s campaign was a grassroots effort, Lim says, and he did not take corporate money. Instead, the campaign relied on “people power,” she says; as part of the campaign, Lee and his team knocked on 30,000 doors and left handwritten notes if no one answered.
Focused on what matters
As a chief of staff, Lim is accustomed to the surprise that sometimes follows when she is introduced as Assemblymember Lee’s righthand person. She knows it can be easy to assume that young people lack the necessary experience or knowledge for important work like policymaking.
“I’m young and I'm Asian, and you don't see that demographic in the Capitol in positions of power that often,” Lim says. “But, ultimately, I know I’m in my position for a reason and I need to stay focused on that, rather than what other people think.”
Someone who hasn’t been surprised has been Jeanett Castellanos, associate dean of undergraduate studies at the School of Social Sciences. Castellanos became a mentor to Lim during her freshman year and has encouraged her ever since as she has ascended in her career.
“Allison is such a proactive, culturally conscious leader for social justice,” Castellanos says. “By embracing opportunities to work and learn nationally and internationally, she has deepened her understanding of the social problems marginalized communities face. Our current students can learn numerous lessons from her journey, including how she has worked hard, attained practical experience and used her voice to fight for equity through policies.”
Lim’s focus on equity was central to her senior research project at UCI. To study gender roles, she surveyed social sciences students about the division of labor in households, with questions that asked respondents about their childhood experiences and what they expected for their future gender roles.
The results showed people still held fairly traditional views on gender, Lim says.
“Despite all of these conversations we have about creating more equitable gender roles, we still see these traditional norms being perpetuated by folks who are college-educated and in a community that confronts a lot of these gender expectations quite often,” she says. “The research project was a really good opportunity for me to take what I had been learning theoretically and put it into practice.”
Judith Treas, sociology Distinguished Professor emerita and Lim’s faculty research adviser, says Lim took a crucial step in recognizing that people can hold contradictory views. She also notes how Lim’s survey data have reverberated into the present day.
“Allison’s research showed young men and women both wanted egalitarian marriages — everything split 50-50. However, when asked which partner should stay home if, say, small children needed care, these egalitarian college students also agreed it should be the woman,” Treas says. “Sure enough, years later during the COVID-19 pandemic, mothers have been the ones who lost out in the workforce.”
Upon completing her research project, Lim had the opportunity to present her findings at the annual UCI Undergraduate Research Symposium, which the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) hosts each May. Treas says that Lim’s presentation was a standout.
“Seeing Allison gain that early experience at the UROP symposium was very rewarding,” Treas says. “For many undergrads, the UROP event is the first chance to speak with authority to a professional audience.”
Lim’s senior research project was one of many highlights of her time at UCI. As part of her undergraduate journey, she also studied for a semester at the University of Leeds in England, worked at the Study Abroad Center and the Social Sciences Academic Resource Center, served on the Social Sciences Dean’s Ambassadors Council, and performed with the MCIA dance team and in “The Vagina Monologues” show at UCI. In 2015, she secured an internship in Washington, D.C., as part of the UCDC Summer Internship Program.
Each experience fit her overarching belief in making the most of her undergraduate studies. And she credits her time at UCI for being able to develop key skills that she relies on today.
“For example, even though I didn’t continue in research, in the state legislature my job requires me to read a lot of academic research that helps inform public policy,” Lim says. “And having that training from my undergraduate years allows me to quickly synthesize that information.”
She hopes these lessons will inspire Anteaters today.
“In the moment, students might not see why it’s important to get out of their comfort zone and to try new things,” Lim says. “But college is the best time to expand your horizons and develop important professional and interpersonal skills. By taking advantage of these opportunities, students will see the benefits later on.”
-Kiali Wong Orlowski for UCI Social Sciences
-pictured top: Allison Lim. pictured right: Allison Lim (center) and now-Assemblymember Alex Lee with campaign staff. courtesy of Allison Lim.