Reluctant student politician now the voice for millions
By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
Santa Rosa Junior College student leader Omar Paz Jr. doesn’t aspire to become a politician but you’d never guess that by glancing at his resume.
Paz, 21, served as president of his senior class at Sonoma Valley High School. Last year he was the SRJC Associated Students president. And this summer he was elected president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges, a statewide organization that advocates for the rights of students attending 112 community colleges across the state.
Paz, who considers himself an introvert, is now the voice for more than 2.1 million community college students across the state.
He attends SRJC with the help of financial aid and is the first in his immediate family to attend college. Although he’s only a month into his presidency with the Sacramento-based senate and is hesitant to outline his agenda, better access, equity and increased financial aid are likely priorities.
“I want to make sure we get as much information as possible before I spout out what I’m going to do. There’s lots of advocacy and power you can have mobilized for whatever issue,” Paz said. “Access to college is a really big theme.”
Paz grew up in Sonoma Valley, attending public schools and discovering that participation in sports and school clubs was a way to fend off boredom. He played football and was on the wrestling and track and field teams for the SVHS Dragons and also played recreational soccer.
His venture into student leadership initially came as a fluke, at the urging of friends.
“Politics,” he said, “is not something I ever gravitated toward. I got dragged into it.”
Paz grew up in a mixed-culture family and is bilingual in Spanish and English.
His mother, Laurie Pedroncelli, is of German and Italian descent. Her roots run deep in Kenwood, where her grandparents owned a ranch on Nuns Canyon Road before running a hotel in downtown Kenwood during the heyday of the railroad era. Her father, the late Angelo Pedroncelli, served as chief of the Valley of the Moon Fire Department.
Paz’s father, Omar Paz Sr., is Hispanic and immigrated to the U.S. at 14. He now owns a landscaping business based in Kenwood, where Omar Jr. lives with his father and his family.
Laurie Pedroncelli and Omar Paz Sr. are divorced but their blended (and extended) families are large. Paz has eight siblings ranging from 3 to 41 years of age. His youngest siblings, 3- and 5-year-old sisters, give him some playful relief from the stress of his many responsibilities.
Paz is just two chemistry classes away from his associate’s degree. He hopes to transfer next year to UC-Santa Cruz in environmental studies and then become a high school or college teacher and possibly a restaurateur.
Along with juggling time for school and advocacy work, Paz also serves on the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force that was formed after the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a sheriff’s deputy.
Paz was appointed to the 21-member group by Sheriff Steve Freitas. He is the youngest member of the task force, which continues through December.
“I want to make sure there’s something done,” Paz said of the October shooting. “I want to make sure this never happens again.”
Paz has long held a desire to help others, particularly those with challenges to overcome.
He remembers a pivotal moment from his childhood, when he was just 3 years old. He and his father witnessed a vehicle fatally hit a pedestrian in a crosswalk. Paz worried about the victim’s children and wanted to share his own parents with them.
“It resonated deep down with me,” Paz said.
He’s carried that sense of compassion ever since. He was especially touched by youngsters at the Valley of the Moon Boys and Girls Club, many of them Hispanic and from impoverished backgrounds. Paz worked as a program assistant at the club for more than a year, moved, yet saddened, by the kids’ circumstances.
As both white and Hispanic, Paz has had moments of identity struggles. He has blue eyes and light-colored hair and skin but says the issues were less about his appearance than internal conflicts, leaving him feeling “not Mexican enough, not white enough.”
He continues to work through his feelings, finding satisfaction in reaching out to others.
Paz served as a senator on the statewide board last year but nearly walked away from the council after one drama-filled term.
“There was a ton of conflict,” said Paz, admitting his frustration. “I wanted to pull out my hair.”
When he suggested he was done with the group, he had some 50 Facebook posts and another 20 emails encouraging him to continue. He recognized that his background, impartiality and leadership skills could help turn things around.
“I saw how to make connections between people and know when to say things and when not to,” said Paz. “There was not a single person on the council of 30 who wasn’t friends with me by the end of the year.”
Paz sees his role with the statewide council as a natural progression in his desire to help his peers.
With a sense of humor to keep him grounded, he’s optimistic his presidency will be a successful one.