The Many California Experiences

February 6, 2023 | ,  

A photo of Agnes Varghese, PhD, a 2022 CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellow with the title of her blog post and CCST logo on a blue background
Agnes Varghese, PhD, was a 2022 CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellow placed with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. She earned her PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of California, Riverside studying how human beings develop strength in various contexts of difficulty. Agnes grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and earned her BA in Broadcast Journalism and BS in Psychology from the University of Maryland, College Park, and her MA in Developmental Psychology from the University of California, Riverside. Currently, Agnes is a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow placed with the United States Agency for International Development.


In January of 2022, I took my very first work trip as a CCST S&T Policy Fellow at the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) to observe a wildfire-impacted disaster site. After a three-hour drive—weaving through winding roads toward the Sierra Nevada mountains—I stepped out of the car in my uniform (a short-sleeved black polo and baggy khakis) into one of the only grocery stores I could find in a snowy, small town.

At the register, the cashier prompted me to enter my phone number for a discount. When he noticed I had an unfamiliar area code, I told him my number was from Maryland, where I spent most of my years growing up. He asked me why I would ever want to move to a state like California, and suggested that I should go back to Maryland. His question struck me. Maybe he thought it must be much more glamorous there than the town he and I were crossing paths in?

It was at that moment that it really sunk in—not everyone lives in the same California.


Three photos of Agnes surveying disaster sites including a burned truck and other wreckage
Left: The kind of gear Agnes wore when she went on visits to disaster sites. Hiding under the neon vest are the Cal OES-issued black polo and khakis Agnes mentioned in this post. Right: Wildfire-impacted disaster sites. These particular photos were taken in Mariposa County after the 2022 Oak Fire. | Agnes Varghese


The Golden State that we often see advertised on our television screens—you know, the one with the folks who can afford plastic surgery, riding off into the sunset in their convertibles amidst the slanted palm trees and beautiful skies—isn’t the state that is experienced by many who are here.

In fact, 13.2% of residents live in poverty, making California the state with the highest poverty rate in the nation.

There was a similar sentiment conveyed to me during my fellowship placement at Cal OES, with a focus on reducing the barriers to federal funding that can assist Californians who are suffering, especially as they experience the increasing number and intensity of emergencies/disasters in the state.


A photo of President Biden surrounded by staff and leadership at CalOES
Cal OES is always seeking talented and dedicated individuals to assist Californians in the face of emergencies. Utilizing her broadcast journalism background, Agnes made this recruitment video for the Cal OES Recovery Directorate to teach potential employees about the work of the Directorate, and to inspire them to join the growing team. Pictured: President Biden and Governor Newsom visit the State Operations Center at Cal OES headquarters. | Agnes Varghese / Cal OES


From refugees, to migrants, to the unhoused, to natural disaster survivors, I witnessed the difficult and brave experiences of many people who were just trying to navigate a better life for themselves and their families. The stories I encountered were often heartbreaking, but I knew I was exactly where I needed to be—learning from those I am serving. No one should ever be involved in the making or implementation of policy without truly knowing what the people they are serving are experiencing. And even further, we should be working to include these affected individuals and their perspectives in the policy process.


It was exciting to get the chance to learn from those who are fighting day in and day out to make a difference.


Through my Cal OES experience, I was also able to gain direct exposure to the dedicated work of California’s State employees. I saw the staff and leadership of Cal OES laboring tirelessly to make sure the people of California had what they needed when vulnerable to disasters or after surviving them. With their work driven by the goals of equity, resilience, climate adaptation, and sustainability, they strove to implement innovative, data-driven solutions to the problems facing the state. It was exciting to get the chance to learn from those who are fighting day in and day out to make a difference.


A collage of two photos featuring Agnes' mentors.
What’s life without great mentors? Agnes is happy to have gotten the chance to run into many of them recently. Pictured from these run ins are UC Riverside Department of Psychology Professor, Dr. Misaki Natsuaki (left); and the UC Riverside Science to Policy Program Director (and former CCST Executive Director) Dr. Susan Hackwood and Associate Director Doug Brown (right)—both longtime champions of the Fellowship program. Agnes is thankful to have had these people inspire and support her career path. | Agnes Varghese


Although I did end up moving back to Maryland after this state fellowship to gain federal experience in nearby Washington D.C. as a AAAS S&T Policy Fellow, I’m grateful to have had this adventure that I think back on as one of the most meaningful of my life. I was surrounded by people who encouraged me, I learned what it really takes to be a leader, and I got the opportunity to contribute to purposeful projects that also expanded my understanding of the lived experiences of people in California.


Three photos of Agnes with her friends and family.
Although Agnes misses the sunny life she lived during her six years residing in California, she is excited to be back around family and do things like attend Maryland Thanksgiving celebrations for the first time since 2014. | Agnes Varghese


From incorporating research, to utilizing communication skills, to feeling like I’m making a difference – becoming immersed in the world of science policy has allowed me to find a path that combines my various interests in the perfect way.


A photo of Agnes' softball team in green shirts.
Agnes enjoyed getting to know her co-workers at Cal OES. Here, Agnes is pictured with her Cal OES softball team, Team Resilience. They unfortunately did not win the season, and to be honest, Agnes is not a very talented softball player.


I pursued the CCST fellowship and a Cal OES placement because I wanted the opportunity to look at life and the state of California through a different lens, and to feel a sense of greater purpose.

Thankfully, I was able to do exactly that.


Two photos of Agnes side by side, standing in front of the California State Capitol and the US Capitol
If you are near a Capitol, you have to get a picture with that Capitol. Those are the rules. On the left, you can see Agnes taking a sunshine selfie with the California State Capitol. On the right, Agnes is telling herself to breathe as she stands by the U.S. Capitol and thinks about her new life working in the chaos of D.C. | Agnes Varghese


About the CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellowship
The CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellows program places PhD-level scientists, engineers, and social scientists in the California State Legislature, State Agencies, and Offices of the Governor for a year of public policy, leadership training, and public service—training scientific thinkers to be policy-savvy, while helping equip California’s decision makers with science-savvy staff. Discover how our CCST S&T Policy Fellows make a difference in California’s policy arena and learn how to apply at

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