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From State Street to state senator: Jake Oliveria recounts his time at Framingham State

Emily Rosenberg / THE GATEPOST

By Emily Rosenberg


Jake Oliveria remembers the exact moment he realized he wanted to make a difference in state and local government.

He was sitting in the gallery of the Massachusetts House of Representatives chamber for six hours listening to the members of the house give impassioned speeches about marriage equality.

Oliveria was job shadowing 7th Hampden District State Representative Thomas Petrolati, who was participating in a constitutional convention that would result in Massachusetts becoming the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.

“That day, I could feel history being made,” Oliveria said. In 2004, social acceptance for LGBTQ+ rights was well below 50% in the United States. Sixteen years later, masked and distanced from his colleagues, he found himself standing in that same spot, taking an oath to serve as the next state legislator for that district and represent the needs of constituents in his hometown, Ludlow.

In 2022, he packed up his office and moved to the east wing of the State House after being elected his district’s senator.

Oliveria now represents parts of Hampden, Hampshire, and Worcester counties in the Massachusetts Senate, serving as Chair of the Joint Committee for Municipalities and Regional Government and the Vice Chair of the Joint Committee for Public Health.

His career in the State House came as a surprise to no one as he has been making strides for his district and the state as a member of the Ludlow School Committee for 12 years, as a member of the local government advisory committee, and the President of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, among other roles.

One of his earliest opportunities to advocate for his community started at Framingham State, where he served as student trustee for three consecutive years from 2005 to 2008.

The student trustee is the only elected member of the 11-member Board of Trustees, the University’s governing body. Oliveria’s unusual tenure as a student on the Board allowed him to outlast several appointed members, and gave him a valuable perspective on the University’s decisions.

Most student trustees are juniors or seniors. Oliveria joined the Student Government Association as a freshman and ran for trustee as a sophomore.

As a student trustee, Oliveria encouraged student advocacy and engagement and organized multiple student lobbying days, which brought legislators to campus, including Senator Karen Spilka, to speak about higher education issues the Student Government Association found crucial.

He said one of the bills that students and faculty lobbied for, passed. It provided $2 billion in funding for capital projects at state universities, resulting in new buildings on many campuses for the first time in decades, including Framingham State. He said capital updates are necessary to attract students to campus so they can have the quality of education “that you would get if you were paying five times as much to go to [another] institution.”

He said he thinks the pandemic isolation impacted engagement on college campuses and it is difficult to build back the momentum that existed with previous traditions such as student advocacy day, but the enthusiasm also “ebbs and flows.”

During his time as Trustee, the Board undertook a presidential search, transitioning from President Helen Heineman to President Tim Flanagan.

“It was an interesting experience to go through a presidential search because one of the main responsibilities of a Board of Trustees is to hire, fire and hold accountable the campus’ chief executive, the president,” he said.

Oliveria earned his degree in government, now the political science department.

He said the size of his classes allowed him to grow close with several of the faculty. He specifically commended the late Elaine Storella, and George Jarnis, Doug Telling, and John Ambacher.

“The people you have as a student there, and the education that you receive, is second to none. And that's something that I always remember about Framingham State.” Working with and learning from faculty who were “experts in their field” and “had decades of experience” was always “exciting” to him, he said.

Ambacher said Oliveria was what he saw as the “ideal student.

“He was always open minded and receptive to any new ideas. But on the other hand, he had his own opinions and he was not afraid to express those either to other students or to me,” he said.

He added, “He always had a civic-mindedness about him when he was a student. And again, that's one of the things I appreciated about having him in class.”

Ambacher said he changed his pedagogy in his last few years of teaching, using more case studies and including more work with students, “and Jake was a real resource for that. I mean, he really took to that and became a leader in class.”

A lot of this in-class expertise Oliveria carried into his career.

Legislators are often asked to weigh in on international issues such as the Russian-Ukrainian war, which also requires Oliveria to put his government degree to use. “You take that and you look at it, what you're doing as a legislator today, and you harken back to the courses you took at Framingham State for the knowledge and historical background of it. My degree at Framingham State is constantly used and continually put to the test,” Oliveria added.

“George Jarnis always referred to the bureaucracy as the fourth branch of government and it truly is.

“Working with the bureaucratic side of the equation as a legislator and trying to push them a certain way” is something he learned as a student at Framingham, Oliveria said.

He said he chose Framingham State because he fell in love with the campus on a tour - it was “laundry distance,” far enough to be independent from his parents, but close enough to Ludlow to come home on some weekends. He added the urban location of the school and that it was the alma mater of several family members also sparked his desire to study at Framingham.

His mother was a retired secretary and his father was a teacher, so the affordability of the school was “also a major factor.”

He particularly loved the history of May Hall. “It was kind of an old-school feel, like you were kind of going back in time.”

His freshman year was an exciting era to be on campus because it was the first time in 80 years the Red Sox won the World Series.

“I still remember being on Larned Hill in front of Towers and Larned just yelling and screaming when the Sox first defeated the Yankees in the ALS Championship and then when they won the World Series. Framingham State is tied to that in my mind and always will be,” he said.

Oliveria also recalled now-Senate President Spilka was running for her first term as senator during his freshman year. “I volunteered for her campaign by walking down the hill and down Route 9 to her campaign headquarters that was right there.”

His role as student trustee was only the beginning of Oliveria’s career advocating for investments in public higher education. Upon walking into his office, one will find a frame of pictures of all of the state universities from when he served as the Assistant Executive Officer to the State Universities of Massachusetts Council of Presidents.

Oliveria also shared that one of his proudest accomplishments as a representative and senator is drafting the endowment incentive fund, which invests in public higher education by matching private donations to public institutions dollar for dollar.

He said in his first two years as a state representative, the program brought back $45 million for state institutions and the program was funded again this year in the FY 24 budget.

He added another initiative he is proud of is passing the Student Opportunity Act. The bill invested millions of dollars in the Commonwealth’s gateway cities, and Springfield recently became the first city to offer universal Pre-K.

Oliveria said during both his campaign for the House and the Senate, he focused on making sure Western Massachusetts gets its fair share of resources. Perhaps one of the most obvious differences between his term as representative and his term as senator is that starting in 2021, most of his legislative campaigning and work was no longer restricted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While running for representative, much of the support was gathered by going door to door because the success rate of people opening was much higher because everyone was at home. This was much different than any other campaign he had run. He said he wouldn’t have had as many opportunities to interact with voters had the pandemic not happened.

When elected, he didn’t even technically have a real swearing-in ceremony, as when he was administered the oath, it was to an empty chamber. He said all state legislators are typically given a legislative orientation on the UMass Amherst campus, but this was not possible because of the need for social distancing. Therefore, the legislators learned along the way and taught each other based on their own institutional knowledge. The representatives who were elected that year call themselves “The COVID Class,” he said, and all of the representatives were given a framed collage with their campaign pictures.

“It made our class of new legislators really work together very closely. And so we became fast friends as a group because we had to stick together,” he said.

Oliveria has one memory from when he served on the school committee that he says truly defined his reason to stay in public service.

In 2009, he was the defining vote in a controversial decision to make the elementary schools in Ludlow grade-based instead of district-based, yielding nearly $1.2 million in savings for the town.

As a 22-year-old elected official, Oliveria faced “a lot of heat,” received threats, and even had residents claiming his election was phony.

He said this was a defining moment in his career because at every level of government - from local elected officials to the president - it is important to “see the bigger picture down the road.

“The loudest voices are not always the most forward thinking,” he added.

He said what motivates him is realizing that his position can “influence more positive change.

“I can impact people's lives and make them better and give voice to them. And so whether that's protecting people's rights, or investing in key areas that help people uplift themselves - every day is a privilege and an honor to be a legislator and to influence policy,” he said.

Reflecting upon Oliveria’s public service, Senate President Spilka said, “He has dedicated his life to public service, first as an intern in my office while at Framingham State, then as a staffer in the House, school committee member, House member, and now state Senator.

“He is a great listener and collaborator, two qualities that I really appreciate. He also brings his unique lived experience to his work in the Senate, which makes our work that much stronger. I am grateful to Jake for caring so much for the communities and constituents he represents, as well as our Commonwealth as a whole.”

President Nancy Niemi said she was proud that Oliveria, along with State Representative Adam Scanlon, serve in the Massachusetts State House and are recent alumni of Framingham State. She said to her, it shows “that FSU offers meaningful opportunities for our students who learn what it means to be part of government and community service.”

She added it is reflective of who FSU students are. “The students who attend our University are civic-minded. They care about their communities and want to serve them.”

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