On 2 April 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump referred to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a “young bartender” during a fundraising dinner for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Trump was, of course, hardly the first to paint Ocasio-Cortez as inexperienced or unqualified for her position in Congress. Ever since she became the youngest woman to be elected to that legislative body during the 2018 midterm elections, we’ve encountered dozens of posts about her résumé.
One of the biggest talking points among Ocasio-Cortez’s detractors is that she is uneducated. For example, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson labeled her a “moron” during a segment on his show, the Powerline blog published an article under the rhetorical title “HOW DUMB IS OCASIO-CORTEZ?” and numerous social media users have posted their own derogatory comments insulting the congresswoman’s intelligence.
This rhetoric likely helped sow the seeds of doubt over Ocasio-Cortez’s academic record. One email we received here at Snopes, for instance, questioned whether the congresswoman truly had an economics degree: “Much to do about AOC — Ocasio Cortez — of late and questions about her college degree? We read she actually did not get an econ degree, but an International Relations degree. If so, much of her credibility is in question. What is real here?”
The satirical Babylon Bee added a bit more confusion to the situation when they latched onto the criticism and published an article stating that the congresswoman’s economics degree had been revoked.
Here is the reality: Ocasio-Cortez truly graduated cum laude from Boston University in 2011. In an article about distinguished alumni, the university wrote that “Ocasio-Cortez graduated from Boston University in 2011 with a BA in International Relations and Economics.”
We reached out to the university to clarify the issue: Did she earn a degree in international relations with a focus in economics? Or did she major in both international relations and economics? They indicated that the latter was true.
A spokesperson for the university told us: “She graduated in 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts degree with two majors in International Relations and Economics. Latin Honors awarded was cum laude that is not tied to an individual major but the degree.”
A spokesperson for the congresswoman added: “She was awarded a double major [degree] in both International Relations and Economics.”
It seems relevant to note that possessing a college degree is not a requirement for becoming a member of the House of Representatives in the U.S. Congress. The only constitutional requirements are that members must be U.S. citizens, residents of the areas they represent, and at least 25 years of age. While the majority of Congressmembers do have college degrees, a profile of the 115th Congress published in December 2018 found that 18 members of the U.S. House of Representatives had no educational degree beyond a high school diploma.
The congresswoman’s college years weren’t the only part of her résumé that had been called into question — we’ve also received queries about internships, science projects, and asteroids. A popular meme posted to the Facebook page “Occupy Democrats” summed up a few of the claims about Ocasio-Cortez’s alleged accomplishments:
The claims made in this meme are largely accurate.
In high school, she won 2nd place at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair
Before she became a congresswoman, Ocasio-Cortez was a high school student with an interest in microbiology. While the statement reproduced above is largely accurate, we have one small caveat about it: Ocasio-Cortez won second place in the microbiology category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), not second place overall for the entire fair.
The Society for Science and the Public, the organization that hosts ISEF, wrote about Ocasio-Cortez’s accomplishment in a 7 November 2018 article and congratulated their former contestant on her congressional victory:
Congratulations to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (ISEF 2007) on winning her election to represent New York’s 14th Congressional District! In 2007, Alexandria placed second in the International Science and Engineering Fair in the Microbiology category with her project on the effect of antioxidants on roundworms.
As a science student at Yorktown High School, Alexandria tested the effect of various antioxidants on the lifespan of roundworms, known as Caenorhabditis elegans.
When organisms are under oxidative stress, there are more free radicals (chemicals with unpaired electrons) than antioxidants in the body to neutralize them. Those free radicals react quickly with many other chemicals, and without antioxidants to neutralize them, create cellular chaos. Such an unstable cellular environment has been hypothesized to be responsible for wrinkles, neurological diseases and even cancer.
In a show of appreciation for her efforts, the MIT Lincoln Laboratory named a small asteroid after her: 23238 Ocasio-Cortez
Ocasio-Cortez may have have not won first place at ISEF, but her efforts didn’t go unnoticed. MIT was apparently impressed enough with her work that they named a small asteroid after her.
The congresswoman posted about this unique achievement on Twitter:
Science was my first passion. Asteroid named by @MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in honor of longevity experiments I conducted out of Mt. Sinai.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) June 12, 2018
Readers interested in the specifics of this asteroid can read more about it on the website of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). For those only interested in how the asteroid got its name, NASA included this note at the bottom of their page:
23238 Ocasio-Cortez: Discovered 2000 Nov. 20 by the Lincoln Laboratory Near-Earth Asteroid Research Team in Socorro.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (b. 1989) was awarded second place in the 2007 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for her microbiology project. She attends the Yorktown High School, Yorktown Heights, New York, U.S.A.
She attended Boston University, where she had a John F. Lopez Fellowship
The John F. Lopez Fellowship (JFL) program is offered by the National Hispanic Institute and is available to undergraduate students who “demonstrate leadership potential, willingness to face challenges, and ability to share talent and skill with the Hispanic/Latino community.” NHI Magazine noted Ocasio-Cortez’s time as a JFL intern when they named her the National Hispanic Institute’s “Person of the Year” in 2017:
Ocasio-Cortez is accustomed to beating the odds and forging forward with determination. She was tutored well by her father throughout her early years, and kept close company with her mother, grandmother, and younger brother. At just 17, her father suddenly became ill and died, but bearing the burden of that heavy and personal loss, she enrolled at Boston University, completed her program in four years, and graduated fourth in her class.
As a high school student, she participated in the NHI Lorenzo de Zavala Youth Legislative Session and became intensely involved in the organization’s work, going on to serve as an LDZ Secretary of State and a John F. Lopez Intern while in college.
During college, she interned in the immigration office for U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy
Here’s how she described her internship in the foreign affairs and immigration office of Senator Kennedy in a 2018 article published by Mic:
After enrolling at Boston University on a scholarship from Intel, Ocasio-Cortez found herself working in the foreign affairs and immigration office of Sen. Ted Kennedy from early 2008 until his death in 2009.
“I was the only Spanish speaker, and as a result, as basically a kid — a 19-, 20-year-old kid — whenever a frantic call would come into the office because someone is looking for their husband because they have been snatched off the street by ICE, I was the one that had to pick up that phone,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “I was the one that had to help that person navigate that system.”
That experience shaped her understanding of the challenges faced by undocumented people in the United States — challenges she says Democrats in Congress have not done enough to fix.
Boston University’s profile of the congresswoman on their “Distinguished Alumni” page also notes that “during her time at BU, she was an intern in the immigration office of US Senator Ted Kennedy.”