Class of 2024

Shirley Arriaga

State Representative, 8th Hampden District: Age 34

Shirley ArriagaShirley Arriaga says her life and career have gone pretty much according to plan. Or the plan, to be more precise.

It was one she started conceiving when she was young, one that had her moving into public service and helping to write laws that would positively impact people, something she long aspired to do, and is now doing as state representative for the 8th Hampden District — her hometown of Chicopee.

To get there, though, she knew she needed an education, and she needed to develop skills, especially leadership, and this put her on a path to the military, specifically the U.S. Air Force, serving as a loadmaster in the 337th Airlift Squadron at Westover. She would take part in deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, eventually earning the rank of staff sergeant and becoming part of the Women in Aviation initiative.

Arriaga’s service helped her continue her education — an associate degree in liberal arts from Springfield Technical Community College; a bachelor’s degree in legal studies and a paralegal certificate from Elms College; a master of law degree from Western New England University; and an associate degree in aerospace, aeronautical, and astronomical engineering from the Community College of the Air Force.

After serving in the Air Force for a decade, she worked as veterans director for U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, assisting veterans with a wide range of issues, and it was this work that crystalized her desire to run for public office.

After an unsuccessful run for City Council, she set her sights much higher — filling the very large shoes of retiring, long-time state Rep. Joseph Wagner, in what everyone but her saw as a longshot bid.

“I personally knocked on 21,000 doors myself,” she said, often with her daughter, Winter, in tow. “I ended up getting some folks to volunteer, and they knocked on 5,000 more — so that’s 26,000 doors. It was a lot of hard work, sunup to sundown.”

That hard work was rewarded with victory in November 2022, followed by a year of hard learning.

“When they say it’s like drinking from a firehose, that’s exactly what it was like; there’s no manual, and you learn these things as you go,” she said, adding that she has settled in and is focused on priorities ranging from veterans to education; from small business to transportation. “It’s fast-paced, and you’re always learning, but it has been the experience of a lifetime.”

And the fulfillment of a plan she made a long time ago.

—George O’Brien