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Dr. Gro Brundtland: Local High School Students Inspired by Former World Leader

Select female high school students from South Hadley and Holyoke got firsthand advice on the challenges women leaders face from a woman who knows a lot about leadership. Dr. Gro Brundtland, who was on campus October 25–28 as Mount Holyoke’s Global Studies Fellow-in-Residence, spent more than ten years in her terms as prime minister of Norway and five years as director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO). In addition to giving a lecture to the MHC community and teaching in some MHC classes, on Friday, October 28, Brundtland spent a couple of hours over lunch with local high school students, talking about the issues women face in striving for leadership positions.

“I am always trying to find new opportunities to involve the community beyond the College into the center's activities,” said Eva Paus, director of the Center for Global Initiatives, which orchestrated the visit. “Dr. Brundtland is such a powerful and inspiring role model, as somebody who has brought about positive change in the world and as a woman who has smashed all glass ceilings. So it was natural for me to think of creating an opportunity to bring high school girls from the area together with Dr. Brundtland to learn from her and to discuss with her the leadership challenges girls and women face.”

The students, seated in a circle, listened intently as Brundtland shared with them memories of her upbringing in a family that cared deeply about social and global concerns, a family in which she and her brothers were treated equally at a time when not all women were given that kind of encouragement. Throughout her career, Brundtland advocated for women’s health and family issues, such as breastfeeding and family childbirth leave.

After asking Brundtland questions about what motivates her, how she juggled her career and motherhood, and where her favorite place to travel has been (she’s visited 112 countries), the students broke into smaller groups with MHC students as moderators to discuss issues of leadership in the context of Brundtland’s talk: what does being a leader mean to them, who are leaders in their life, and what are challenges women leaders face.

The students cited advice Brundtland had given: that leadership takes courage, you have to be able to stand up for what you believe in, and sometimes you have to have the courage to say “I don’t know.” One student was moved when Brundtland got emotional talking about an argument she had with her father when she was young. Her father called her from work later that day, a rarity, to apologize. Brundtland advised, “As you are mothers and leaders, remember that dignity and respect for others is fundamental.”

“We were really excited to bring the kids here and to be able to provide an experience that’s different from what they get at high school,” said Pamela Hunter, assistant principle at South Hadley High School. “It’s great for them to hear someone who has done so well and speaks so directly, and it’s also great that they got to talk with some Mount Holyoke students.”

Brundtland was thankful for the opportunity to meet with the students, saying it was interesting to listen to them and to hear them communicate with each other.