Legislative director says a ‘promise to myself’ motivated her to earn Sac State degree

Tara McGee-Visger ’14 (Psychology) was enrolled at Sacramento City College when she became pregnant with her son. At the time, she had a good, full-time job as an office assistant at the State Capitol. Her family told her to focus on being a mom for a while. But she had other plans. 

“I made a promise to myself that I wanted to have that degree and to have a continued education so I could be a great role model for my son, and to express the importance of education to him,” she said. 

Today, McGee-Visger is a legislative director for state Senator Anthony J. Portantino, playing a major role at the State Capitol helping draft new legislation, analyzing pending legislation and serving as one of the senator’s community liaisons. It’s a job in which, she says, her Sacramento State psychology degree is immensely helpful. 

The path to that degree, however, wasn’t easy. After earning her associate’s degree, she transferred to Sacramento State, a single mom still working full time. She arrived on campus at 7 a.m. and stayed until about 8:30, when she would leave for her job. After working 9 to 5, she returned to Sac State, often staying until 10 p.m. 

“I spent time at the library between classes,” she said. “It was my free time to not focus on work or family. It was more of me being self-isolated, me really zoning in to meditation or reflection.” 

She took as many online courses as possible, and enrolled in every summer and winter session. And her persistence paid off when she graduated in two years. She was the first person in her immediate family to earn a four-year degree, but her extended family has deep roots at the University. Her husband Shawn played baseball at Sac State, and her father-in-law was a football coach. Her sister started at Sac State before moving on to beauty school, and her sister’s husband is a Hornet alum. 

Throughout her time on campus, McGee-Visger said, she received support from both her family and her Sacramento State professors. The latter, she said, were understanding and flexible, allowing extra time for assignments if needed and making themselves available if she was having difficulty with course material.  

“Sac State really helped me become organized,” she said. “(My faculty) helped me to become a great writer. In a political career you have to be able to write and comprehend, and I think they really prepared me for that.” 

She had intended to become a child school counselor. But throughout her time on campus she continued to work at the State Capitol as an executive assistant and legislative aide for state Assemblyman Isadore Hall III. Realizing it was a place where she could make a difference in her community, she decided to stay in the world of politics. 

Tara McGee, center, serves as the legislative director for state Senator Anthony Portantino, left, advising him on issues such as education and health care.

“In 2018, the governor signed two of the bill ideas that I gave to my senator,” she said. “Having that voice and that say and it becoming law really has been rewarding.” 

The first bill, modeled after a school district in Arizona, required a suicide hotline number be included on the back of every student ID card in the state. The second raised the legal age to purchase any gun, not just handguns, to 21. 

McGee-Visger also staffs Portantino on health and education issues, introducing 23 bills this year, though that number had to be trimmed back following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I take a lot of what I learned from my degree into my workplace now in politics,” she said. “It’s helped me work on a lot of and create a lot of mental health related issue bills.” 

As she works, her motivation is the same thing that helped her persist to a Sacramento State degree in the first place: her son. 

“He makes me strive to be a better person, and to create goals for myself and to lead and be kind and mentor,” she said. “He teaches me more than he knows.” 

Cosmetics and community: Leslie Valdivia’s makeup brand celebrates Latinx culture

Leslie Valdivia ’14 majored in public relations. After graduating, she worked at a variety of nonprofits, government organizations and PR agencies, where she used skills learned at Sacramento State to run marketing campaigns and pitch countless stories to the news media.

Which makes it slightly ironic that her biggest project, Vive Cosmetics, has landed her in publications such as Oprah Magazine, Buzzfeed and Teen Vogue – all without a single pitch, paid influencer or major ad purchase.

It might speak to the power and resonance of Vive. Valdivia and her friend Joanna Rosario founded the company in 2017 to bridge what they say was a galling disconnect between the cosmetics industry and Latinx women, who collectively are among the country’s largest purchasers of cosmetics.

In Vive, Valdivia and Rosario set out to build a company that drew from and reflected the experiences of Latinx people. In contrast to the stark, black-and-white packaging standard in the industry, Vive incorporates vibrant colors representing Latinx art, culture and food. Names of makeup include “Lupita,” “Mija,” “Spanglish” and “Selena Forever.”

The company hires Latinx models with diverse skin tones and backgrounds, and makes an effort to work with and hire other Latinx people or organizations. That contrasts, Valdivia said, with an industry that typically features “token Latinas” with light skin and tone-deaf advertising campaigns that clearly did not include Latinas in decision-making.

“There’s so much diversity that exists in the Latinx experience that I felt was not represented,” she said. “I wanted to create a brand that represents the diversity within our own community.”

Raised in Lodi by parents who were Mexican immigrants, Valdivia was the first in her family to attend college, arriving at Sacramento State in 2009. She majored in biology and then nursing before changing course to public relations, which she felt better matched her talents and personality.

Valdivia was a persistent student who never gave up on an assignment, said journalism professor Timi Poeppelman. One such assignment involved live reporting on Twitter, and at first Valdivia struggled. But, Poeppelman said, Valdivia continued to work at it until she was so skilled she was teaching it to other students.

“She went, maybe in a year’s time, from it being a huge struggle to being the expert on it,” Poeppelman said. “As she’s done all these amazing things after graduating, I’m not surprised, because she keeps chipping away at it and owning it and making it her own. It’s really cool to see.”

Outside of the classroom, Valdivia kept busy. She was a member of the Latina support-network club Mujeres Ayudando la Raza and the Sigma Pi Alpha sorority. She worked as a student employee in the Orientation, Services for Students with Disabilities office and University Communications, among other places.

Leslie Valdivia, smiling, in front of a studio backdrop and holding products from her makeup company Vive Cosmetics
Leslie Valdivia co-founded Vive Cosmetics, a makeup brand for Latinx individuals, in 2017. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

“Working on campus, going to school and participating in extracurricular activities made my experience a really positive one, and I think that’s what led me to solidify connections in the community,” she said. “Sac State is really engrained in the community, and I think working here and having experiences here led me to having some great opportunities after I left.”

Valdivia held a variety of jobs after graduation, but her work with a local nonprofit as a financial assistant for low-income, Spanish-speaking families had the biggest impact. Meeting with struggling families who were nevertheless starting their own businesses put her own privilege – having a higher-education degree – into perspective and inspired her to do something greater with her skills.

She and Rosario came up with the concept for a Latinx-focused cosmetics company and applied for a small business loan through the nonprofit. Vive was born a few months later.

“The reason I got into communications was thinking about, how do I use myself and my language to create some kind of change or bring people knowledge for them to create change?” Valdivia said. “How can we uplift our community, and especially the community I belong to, in a positive light? And if it’s not there, how do I create that change or contribute to it?”

In December, the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce honored Valdivia with its Rising Estrella award, given annually to a young Latina professional making an impact in the Sacramento region.

Cathy Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber, said the award recognizes not just Valdivia’s entrepreneurship but also her work in the community, such as the Youth Latinas Inspire conference she organizes annually at Sacramento State to discuss issues important to Latinx women.

“I see her as someone who’s going to be successful in business because she understands when you do good, you’ll do well,” Rodriguez said. “She is always going to have that part of her that knows giving back to the community, being a positive role model for others, and showing that there’s different paths in life to reach success is just as important as the bottom line.”

Sacramento State helped build for Valdivia, who recently quit her full-time job to focus solely on Vive, a foundation for the success that has followed. The University’s public-relations program and extracurricular activities provided practical skills and connections. It also exposed her to a diverse set of people and viewpoints while helping her become comfortable with her own identity.

“Finding community and relating to other people really helped me move forward, embracing who I was,” she said. “The brand I created is about embracing myself as a Latina, and all the diverse experiences we have.”

Three Sacramento State alums win 2019 Estrella awards

Sacramento State was well represented at the 2019 Estrella awards, which were presented Dec. 10: Three of the four honorees are Hornet alums.

Leslie Valdivia-Rivas ’14 (Public Relations), co-founder of Vive Cosmetics, received the Rising Estrella award; Maritza Davis ’07 (Public Relations), vice president of experiences and social responsibility for the Sacramento Kings, received the Inspiration Estrella Award; and Alice Perez ’99 (Finance and Insurance), a director with AT&T External Affairs, was honored with the Legacy Estrella Award.

The awards are given annually by the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (SHCC) to recognize Latinas making an impact in the Sacramento region.

In addition to the alumna honorees, Sacramento State alumna and award-winning mariachi singer Beatriz Figueroa ’19 (Sociology) provided entertainment during a lunch before the award program. Figueroa is a familiar face to the Hornet Family, having served as the national anthem singer at Commencement for the past three years.

Davis, who was introduced by SHCC Board Chair and Sacramento State Vice President for Public Affairs and Advocacy Phil Garcia, spent a decade redefining community in Sacramento as the co-founder, with her husband and fellow alum Roshuan, of Unseen Heroes, a marketing and events agency responsible for events such as GATHER: Oak Park and the Midtown Farmers Market. Last year, she took a position with the Kings, where her responsibilities include managing programs such as the Junior Kings and more than 350 community events annually.

In her remarks, she encouraged attendees to continue to work on behalf of the city and the city’s youth.

“Sacramento is an amazing city, we are amazing people that all come together,” Davis said. “It really does take a village every single day.”

At AT&T, Perez is the public safety and emergency response lead and a liaison to local governments and nonprofits in 11 counties. She previously worked as president/CEO of the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce and as vice president and director of U.S. Bank’s national multicultural banking initiatives. She has been recognized widely for her work in the community, and currently serves on the board of the University Foundation at Sacramento State.

Perez was introduced by her daughter Renee Nelson, and took the stage to standing ovation. In her remarks, she highlighted the importance of putting words into actions when it comes to making change in Sacramento.

“It’s important that we lead the change that we want to see, and we don’t just talk about the things that need to occur to make a difference in the community, but that we take a stance and that all of us owns it,” she said.

Valdivia-Rivas was unable to attend the ceremony, and her sister accepted the award on her behalf. The first in her family to graduate from college, Valdivia-Rivas co-founded Vive Cosmetics in 2016 after realizing the lack of Latinx representation in the beauty industry. The company has been featured in Oprah Magazine, Buzzfeed, Teen Vogue and Latina magazine.