Work

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says asking herself this question at 18 changed the direction of her life

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez delivers a speech during the Women's March in Columbus Circle in New York, United States on January 19, 2019.
Atilgan Ozdil | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, says she was close to skipping out on a life in politics, until her world changed at 18.

When Ocasio-Cortez was a sophomore at Boston University, her father died of lung cancer. At the time she was pre-med track, and studying biochemistry, but she says the tragic event made her question what she really wanted to achieve in her life.

"What the passing of my father did was, it didn't change who I was, but I think it forced me to have a much more acute understanding [of myself]," she said in an interview with journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates at the fourth annual MLK Now event at Riverside Church in Harlem on Monday, Jan. 21. "It really clarified a lot of things, because having my father pass away at such a young age forced a lot of questions of mortality. What am I here for?"

That question was the start of her switch from a medical future to a political one.

"[My father] passed when he was 48 years old, and so it really forced me to grapple with questions of legacy and what is important and what do I want to do with my life at 18," she continued. "I really started to feel when I was on this premedical route that it was going to take another 12 years for me to actually serve as a doctor, after residency and medical school and undergrad, and even then it would be on a case by case basis. And I wanted to examine issues on a more macro scale, which led me to start studying public health more."

Ocasio-Cortez recounts that she then went to West Africa and did some maternal health work there that led her to ultimately make the final transition toward economics and policy. She graduated from Boston University in 2011 with a bachelor's degree in international relations and economics.

She went on to work for the late Senator Ted Kennedy, act as an organizer for Bernie Sander's presidential campaign and serve as an education director at the National Hispanic Institute all before launching her own election bid.

On Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, at age 29, Ocasio-Cortez become the youngest woman in history to be elected to Congress, winning support from more than three-fourths of voters in New York's 14th District. Along the way she had unseated Rep. Joe Crowley, the then-fourth-ranking House Democrat, who had represented the Bronx and Queens district for 10 terms, and shocked the Democratic Party establishment.

She has since continued to turn heads in Washington, D.C. with her proposal to introduce a marginal tax rate as high as 70 percent on income above $10 million, her comments about affording an apartment in the capital, and her new spot on the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees Wall Street and the financial industry.

Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!

Don't miss: Ocasio-Cortez's 70% tax plan gets fierce response, but even Warren Buffett says rich should pay more

VIDEO2:1602:16
There are 3 ways to pay off student loans—here's how to choose the best one for you
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez delivers a speech during the Women's March in Columbus Circle in New York, United States on January 19, 2019.
Atilgan Ozdil | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
make it

Stay in the loop

Sign Up

About Us

Learn More

Follow Us

CNBC.COM