From student to state government, this La Salle alumnus served classmates and now Pennsylvanians.
Ever since he was a kid growing up in the Commonwealth of Dominica, Justin Cornelius, ’19, knew he wanted to be a voice and advocate for others.
His first taste of public service came at school in the eastern Caribbean Island where he was born. Cornelius was the head boy there, equivalent to class president in schools in the U.S. He loved being the person who accomplished things and supported his classmates through meaningful action.
“The people who make the rules don’t include you,” according to Cornelius, “So you need someone who is willing to jump in and ask the questions that need to be asked. Sometimes folks don’t really pay attention to the issues until it affects them.”
At 13, Cornelius brought his ambition to the U.S. in 2011. While involved in debate and student government at Dumont High School in New Jersey, his guidance counselor told him about La Salle University.
“When I visited the campus, I said to myself, ’This is it,’” he said.
Cornelius applied, got accepted under the Summit Program, a former academic offering for first-year students, and immediately joined the student government as a freshman senator. During his first year, Cornelius interned for the campaign for then State Senator John Sabatina, Jr. The campaign
helped him understand the political world more deeply.
Throughout his La Salle experience, he connected with alumni in the political and government fields. Networking landed him in Harrisburg as a student representative for La Salle at the Association of Independent Colleges & Universities of PA (AICUP) advocacy day. The Political Science Department, and in particular professors Miguel Glatzer, Ph.D., and Emma Leonard Boyle, Ph.D., provided opportunities that helped Cornelius thrive. He moved through the spectrum of student government, from vice president of business affairs his sophomore year to student body president, senior resident assistant, and student commencement speaker for the class of 2019.
“Justin Cornelius was a stellar student,” Glatzer said. “He not only excelled academically, but was very active both on and off campus and made the most of the opportunities for civic engagement that La Salle offers. Elected to lead student government, Cornelius also had an internship with the State Senate Campaign for John Sabatina, Jr.”
Asking important questions, keeping students involved, and being present at event after event made Cornelius stand out as the go-to spokesperson for his peers.
“I didn’t always get it resolved, and most times I was told no, and I would push back, but it was my willingness to ask a question that no one was willing to ask,” he said.
That sheer determination sometimes led to dead ends and other times it created a day off for the University. In 2018, Cornelius initiated a 1,500 student-signed petition to cancel classes for the day so the entire student body could attend the Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl Parade.
Following graduation, Cornelius worked for then-State Rep. Rosita C. Youngblood. He moved on to the Gov. Tom Wolf administration, first as a legislative aide for the Department of Education, then a legislative assistant for the Office of Legislative Affairs. He currently serves as the Deputy Secretary of Legislative Affairs in the Office of Gov. Josh Shapiro.
“Some people look at government as bloated, annoying.” Cornelius said. “I believe it has its purpose and, if operated right, will be very helpful.”
He works in the Governor’s Office of Legislative Affairs where he oversees several departments—transportation, state, community and economics, general services, revenue, and banking and securities—advancing the Governor’s legislative agenda while assisting everyday Pennsylvanians navigate state agencies. This help includes dealers renewing their license to correcting a misspelled name on a driver’s license.
“The attention to care and to the details matter. You treat everybody with the same service you want to be treated,” Cornelius said.
Cornelius’s advice for current and future La Salle students? “Trust God and love what you do,” he said. “I love my career. To everything I have a accomplished, I give thanks to God, my amazing wife, supportive family and friends, and great people that I have met along life’s journey. At the end of it all, you reap the rewards of your hard work. Stay the course.”