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.” 

Rene Syler reflects on success, failure, and persistence

Rene Syler knows a little something about perseverance. So it was no surprise she was invited to speak at an on-campus event celebrating the dedication and persistence of Sacramento State students.

Syler was co-host of CBS News’ The Early Show in 2006 when she announced on-air that, because of her family’s history of breast cancer, she had made the decision to undergo a double mastectomy. Later that year, she was fired from the show. She underwent the surgery just five weeks later.

In May, she returned to her alma mater to speak at the annual DEGREES Project Recognition event, which celebrated graduating students and their families.

“When they asked me to come and speak at this event and said they were looking for me to talk about persistence, I thought, ‘I wish I had all the answers,’ because there really aren’t any real answers to that except three words: Just keep going,” Syler says. “The times that I’ve wanted to quit, just when I wanted to quit I’ve been buoyed by some amazing success, and then I would have this amazing success and just when I thought I could rest on my laurels, I would have this incredible failure.”

“Just keep going” is an apt motto for Syler, who attended Sacramento State in part to be near her ailing father so she could care for him. She spent her college years juggling school and family obligations, then established herself as a top journalist before completely reinventing herself and publishing a book on motherhood.

“When I was let go from CBS, I made the decision that I was never going to let anybody upend my life like that, I was never going to let anybody hold my entire life and career in their hands again,” she says. “I was going to have more control.”

Born in Illinois, Syler moved to Sacramento as a child with her family, graduating from Del Campo High School and then attending American River College. After a brief stint in Southern California, she moved back home to attend Sacramento State.

Syler recalls the campus as “very nurturing” and one that provided a “global education” that helped broaden her outlook and prepared her for life after graduation.

“I really had to grow up and take on a lot of responsibility,” she says. “The expectation was that I would do well. Certainly there were people who shored me up and made sure that I did well, but at the end of the day it was on me to get the work done.”

Her plan after graduation was to get her master’s degree in psychology, but then she read about Liz Walker, who at the time was the highest-paid African American woman news anchor in the nation. Always a strong writer and communicator, Syler took a couple of journalism classes outside of Sacramento State and landed an internship at local TV station Channel 40. That internship eventually led to a job and, after stops in Reno, Birmingham, Ala., and Dallas, she became co-host of The Early Show in 2002.

“The degree in psychology was important but it was not just about psychology, it was about getting a degree in life,” Syler says. “I always say that the degree in psychology made me perfectly suited to go into television.”

Over the course of her career, Syler has interviewed her share of big celebrities, including Beyoncé, Prince, John McCain, Ben Affleck, and Antonio Banderas. In particular, she recalls a warm encounter with former First Lady Barbara Bush and former President George H.W. Bush at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, shortly after she had left CBS.

“I introduced myself and (Barbara) said, ‘Oh, George, don’t you remember Rene from The Early Show?’ And it was just so sweet and genuine, and that was the kind of person she was. I felt grateful to have those kinds of experiences.”

Good Enough Mother: The Perfectly Imperfect Book of Parenting, was published in 2007, and Syler calls it her “missive on modern motherhood, born of the fact that, this is who I was. I really was just good enough. I was just a good enough mother and somehow my kids survived.” Away from the journalism career she had spent so many years building, she now was forced to market herself, creating and cultivating her personal brand. The book’s companion website offers tips and information on a variety of topics, including career, health, and family, as well as an “Ask Rene” advice section.

Syler also has continued her television work, hosting Sweet Retreats on the Live Well Network and Exhale on Aspire, as well as appearing on programs such as The Today Show, CNN Headline News, and The View. A former track athlete, she also competes in “warrior dash” and “mud-run” events, and co-owns a women’s fitness company.

Everything she has experienced has given Syler an appreciation for taking the long view and recognizing that there will be both heartbreaking failures and tremendous successes, something she emphasized when she spoke at Sacramento State.

“It really has to be based on the course of a lifetime, and if you look at it like that, that you’re in it for the long haul, it’s all going to come out OK,” she says. “It will not be what you think it will be, but it will be OK. And you know what? In some cases, better than OK.”

After ‘winding road’ to a data science career, Sadie St. Lawrence helps women find a home in the industry

At some point during her first year at Sacramento State, Sadie St. Lawrence ’13 (Psychology) realized she was sick of taking care of rodents.

Sadie St Lawrence

She was working in a lab called “The Neurobiology of Emotional Learning and Memory” and loving the opportunity to learn about science and conduct research. Working with animals? Not so much.

“It was another kind of life crisis where I said, ‘OK, how do I keep the things in my life that I love but get rid of things that don’t bring me joy?’ ” St. Lawrence says. “I honestly don’t even know how I came across data science, but as I read more about it I realized I had some of the core competencies, and then the other ones I thought I could develop.”

Just four years after graduating from Sac State and a little more than a year after earning her master’s degree online from Villanova University, St. Lawrence is the lead data scientist at Rancho Cordova-based VSP, heading up efforts at the United States’ largest vision insurance company to develop data-driven solutions to a variety of business challenges.

When she’s not working, St. Lawrence runs the nonprofit she founded two years ago, Women in Data. The organization – which is focused on raising awareness about the field of data science, educating businesses on how they can use data, and helping to advance women in the field – is borne out of her experience both as a woman in a male-dominated industry and as someone who did not realize until later in her education that the career was an option in the first place.

“The only way the field is going to continue to progress is if we continue to create diversity,” she says. “Any time we shut that off, we’re going to see things slow down. I love my work, I love what I do, so I’m just taking my two passions, data and women, and combining them to make them more diverse and make a better work environment for everyone.”

The lab “life crisis,” was actually the second of its kind along what St. Lawrence calls the “winding way” to her career. An Iowa native, she initially attended Casper College in Wyoming on a piano scholarship before transferring to Sacramento State, which had an exchange program with Casper that allowed her to receive in-state tuition. At the same time, she fulfilled her dream of moving to California.

By the time she came to campus for orientation, however, she realized she didn’t want her hobby to become her job. She had become interested in studying how the mind functions after reading a book about music disorders of the brain, which is how she ended up switching her major to psychology – and how she ended up working in labs like Evolutionary Ecology of Fishes and, yes, Emotional Learning of Memory.

“Sac State was great because I was able to explore so many different ideas with excellent teachers to guide me along the way,” St. Lawrence says. “I meet a lot of people who say, ‘I don’t know what I want to do with my life,’ and my stance is, sometimes figuring out what you don’t like to do is the best way to figure out what you do like to do. Sac State gave me a lot of options to figure out who I really am and what my passion is.”

While concurrently starting her career at VSP and taking graduate courses, she became dismayed that the only opportunities for women data scientists to network seemingly were only in the Bay Area. Drawing on her involvement with the American Association of University Women’s Sacramento State chapter as a student, she decided to take matters into her own hands, founding Women in Data in 2015.

The first meet-up drew just four people. But two years later, it’s an entirely different story. The organization now boasts nearly 600 members, just received tax-exempt status, and is looking to expand to other cities. Events include data science presentations that are open to the community, technical training, and other networking opportunities.

St. Lawrence’s hope is that Sacramento’s data science community becomes as strong as or even stronger than that of the Bay Area or Silicon Valley, especially as she has grown to love the region. In her spare time, she’s a dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner as well as an avid outdoors enthusiast – paddleboarding in the summer, skiing in the winter. And she continues to play piano, a thread that leads back to the start of the sometimes-meandering road to her present.

“At the end of the day, we’re all trying to just find our path,” she says. “You may take a different route to get there, but if you know your end goal and what you want to accomplish, you’ll find a way.”