MHC in D.C. program breaks new ground

Six students participated in the MHC Semester in DC program this year. Clockwise from upper left: Clarissa Soma Goncalves Cordeiro FP '21, Kristina Lester '22, Abigail “Abby” Bridgers '21, Tianyi Zhou '21, Jaxzia Perez '22, and Samantha "Sammi" Craig '22.

By Keely Sexton

The MHC Semester in D.C. program at Mount Holyoke College launched its first remote session this semester with six accomplished students who are participating from around the world, from Brazil to Bar Harbor, Maine. 

But that’s not the only first for this year. This year’s program has expanded to include six students (up from five in previous years) and includes the first Posse Scholar, the first Frances Perkins Scholar and the first 21st-Century Scholar

This is also the first year that Mount Holyoke has partnered with Washington, D.C.-based American University.

“American University is offering a truly exceptional remote experience for our students — rigorous seminars on various topics related to public service and policy, virtual visits with politicians and international and national leaders in public service, and assistance placing students into transformational remote internship opportunities,” said Amy E. Martin, director of the Weissman Center for Leadership, which runs the program. 

“In addition, our students complete an independent study related to their internship work with professor Sohail Hashmi, faculty director of the MHC Semester in D.C. program, and do virtual site visits with him,” Martin said Hashmi is also Professor of International Relations on the Alumnae Foundation. “Throughout their Washington experience, students also benefit from the support and expertise of the Center’s director of Leadership and Public ServiceJanet Lansberry.” 

Apart from their courses and independent study with Hashmi, each student benefits from the guidance of an experienced alum mentor and an internship in an area of their interest. 

“When we realized that an in-person experience in Washington wasn’t possible, it quickly became apparent that this semester opportunity could be just as profoundly transformational for the students participating,” said Martin, who is also Professor of English on the Emma B. Kennedy Foundation. “They will come away from the program fully prepared to achieve their goals in their careers in public service, policy and the fight for social justice and for positive change in the world.”

A dedication to public service

Naomi Barry-Pérez, class of 1996, has been a supporter of the program since before it was named. As the director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center, she sees her role as providing students with the professional experience and guidance they will need to pursue their careers.  

“My internships are very substantive,” she said. “I know Mount Holyoke students are incredibly smart and hard-working, so I give them opportunities to do real research.” 

To date, her office has hosted no fewer than six Mount Holyoke interns over the years. Each intern becomes Barry-Pérez’s personal mentee, and she devotes time in one-on-one meetings with them to help them set and meet their goals. 

“I have a great commitment to public service,” she said. “And that extends to any person who wishes to establish a career in public service. We need to attract the best and brightest in order to make progress in areas where it truly matters.”

Her past interns have helped research and write position papers that have become official policy. 

“It takes someone with a great deal of commitment to succeed in public service,” Barry-Pérez said. “I am particularly interested in helping and coaching young diverse women who are not well-represented in higher levels of government. I am happy to say that we are making definite strides, even though there are barriers.”

Building their careers

Jaxzia Perez, a junior in the Posse program, was excited to be accepted to the MHC Semester in D.C. program. Perez, the founder and a coordinator of MHC Votes, feels that engaging in the political process is paramount for making change. 

The fact that this semester is remote was an unexpected benefit, Perez said, as it reduced the financial costs that she would have had to bear for travel and allowed her to maintain her leadership positions. Her participation was fully funded by the Weissman Center through the generosity of donors who support the program and make it accessible to all Mount Holyoke students.

“They ended up paying to cover the cost of the Washington program, which I’m very grateful for,” she said.

Students in the MHC Semester in D.C. program are responsible for getting their own internships, with help and support from the Weissman Center. Perez, whose Nexus: Curriculum to Career  concentration is law, public policy and human rights, received six internship offers. After serious consideration, she chose to work with the Coalition on Human Needs, an alliance of national organizations focused on promoting public policies that affect low-income and other vulnerable populations. 

“I had so much support from the Weissman Center in helping me choose the right internship for my interests,” Perez said, noting that Lansberry spent hours with her, comparing the pros and cons of the different offers until they settled on the one that would best advance her goals, which include going to law school.

“During this time of COVID, an election and a new opening in the Supreme Court, my internship has helped me realize how much politics can affect vulnerable communities and what partnerships can do to help advocate for them,” said Perez. “My experience at the coalition has motivated me to continue working in public service and potentially become a public interest lawyer.”

Abby Bridgers, a senior from Bar Harbor, Maine, landed an internship at a health policy lobbying firm established by Marsha Simon ’73. 

The Weissman Center helped Bridgers gain the experience and network she would need to pursue a career in politics. She attended the Center’s annual Careers in Public Service conference, as well as a conference on women in health policy. She also used her Lynk funding — which the College provides so that students can pursue unpaid internship and research opportunities — for her summer internship with a biomedical research institution.

In addition to her health policy internship, Bridgers also works with the Sara Gideon for Senate campaign in Maine. Gideon is hoping to unseat incumbent Sen. Susan Collins, who has represented the state since 1997. 

Collins’s crucial support in favor of naming Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, even in the midst of a firestorm of grave sexual assault allegations against him, was the tipping point for Bridgers. 

“It was then that I said if there’s a strong candidate running against Collins, I need to do whatever I can,” she said.

Ultimately, Bridgers sees herself returning to Washington for her career. 

“I’m just hoping to end up in a role where I can combine my interests in advocacy and health and science,” she said.

Clarissa Soma Goncalves Cordeiro ’FP21 is interning with an international consulting firm that addresses regulatory problems worldwide from her hometown of Sao Paulo, Brazil. 

A psychology major with a minor in entrepreneurship, organizations and society (EOS), Cordeiro also did not see herself going into politics — until she did. 

She came to Mount Holyoke because she felt a liberal arts education would allow her to explore new areas of potential interest, and position her better for the career path she chose. 

“I was looking for an opportunity to develop in areas that I haven’t before and to discover other strengths that I had,” she said.

After taking two classes, one on social entrepreneurship with Rick Feldman, lecturer in entrepreneurship, organizations and society, and another on educational policy with her mentor and psychology and education professor Becky Wai-Ling Packard, Cordeiro realized that her strength and passions lay with making a difference.

“In order to see the changes I wanted, I learned that I would have to tackle policy and start making an international-issues network,” she said. Now, working to change deep-seated regulatory problems that have a negative impact on the people they are meant to protect, she couldn’t be happier. Even working from Sao Paulo is a benefit to her, she said. 

“I am grateful that I can do what I love from my home country during these difficult times, especially after being abroad for over seven years. It’s a truly amazing opportunity and learning experience.

From a powerful past toward a powerful future

Empowering Mount Holyoke students to develop careers in public service is a passion for Sally Donner, class of 1963, who has generously supported the MHC Semester in D.C. program, even now that it is remote.

A former Capitol Hill staffer and retired government affairs  professional, Donner has been a long-time volunteer on behalf of Mount Holyoke — in 2013 she received the Alumnae Association’s most prestigious award, the Medal of Honor, for her work.

Donner credits her career to the internship on Capitol Hill that she had under the late Victoria Schuck, who taught politics at Mount Holyoke for 36 years. Schuck conceived of the idea that students interested in careers in leadership and public service should directly work in the seat of power: Washington, D.C. 

Under Schuck, Donner’s internship was with U.S. Rep. Silvio Conte from Massachusetts. The stint landed Donner a full-time job after graduating from Mount Holyoke: Within a week of Commencement she was back in Washington, D.C., working for him. It was a job she held for 11 years, eventually becoming Conte’s chief of staff.

While Donner hopes that the program will return to its in-person roots, she believes deeply in the continued value. 

“My whole career as it evolved was based on that internship,” she said. “I think Washington, D.C., is an important venue for students to learn leadership skills.” 

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