By Kevin McCaffrey
This spring, 26 students from Mount Holyoke College, all focused on careers in public service, headed to Washington, D.C. for two days to learn about changing the world from inspiring alumnae.
The students had been selected to attend the annual Careers in Public Service site visit on March 8, which included an alumnae reception, a tour of the Capitol and panel discussions featuring alumnae leaders in public health and environmental advocacy.
The Weissman Center for Leadership oversees the public service site visits, which began in 2011, through its Leadership and Public Service program. That program trains and inspires students to enter government, politics, policy, advocacy and to seek elected office — all fields in which women are underrepresented.
The two-day trip included a tour of the U.S. Capitol, made possible by Rep. Nita Lowey ’59.
“My biggest takeaway was how many possibilities there are in public service for open-minded, driven and prepared Mount Holyoke students,” said Franny Eremeeva ’20, an international relations major. Meeting some of the College’s prestigious alumnae was a particular bonus, she said.
“Alumnae unapologetically told us how circuitous their career paths had been,” she said. “They said to stay grounded and focused, but also open to having multiple careers, and to prepare for them by taking challenging classes, applying for internships and honing our networking skills.”
The event exemplifies the power of a Mount Holyoke education, said Acting President Sonya Stephens, who attended the two-day immersion.
“As we consider the world situation and the daunting challenges we all face,” said Stephens, “It’s heartening to see one generation of alumnae leaders opening doors for the next generation of Mount Holyoke graduates. Both generations are committed to the College’s ideals of engaging with the most difficult issues of the day to build a more open, fair, and inclusive world.”
No more important time than now
Those careers could include running for office, crafting policy or advocating for issues that matter in a global and sustainable world, Amy E. Martin, interim director of the Weissman Center for Leadership, told the students.
“There is no more important time than now for us to consider our roles and our work,” said Martin, who is also Professor of English on the Emma B. Kennedy Foundation.
Her message landed.
“The alums we met all had really interesting stories about their journeys from Mount Holyoke to the Hill,” said Leila Kouakou ’18, an environmental studies major. “Like me, many of them were uncertain about their future after graduation. They largely credited their success to the robust alumnae network and all the connections they’ve made through Mount Holyoke.”
Over the two days, speakers and panelists working on public service focused on three key themes: the elements that go into shaping a career, the foundation they gained from a Mount Holyoke education, and the critical importance of encouraging more women to participate and lead in public service.
Mount Holyoke instills the core ideals necessary for a career in public service, said keynote speaker Sarita Gupta ’96, executive director of the advocacy organization Jobs with Justice.
Those ideals “include the idea that people can come together and have a shared need and a vision for a solution that they can act on together to improve their lives,” she said, noting “the importance of a shared democracy — one in which women can participate and vote.”
Gupta’s work focuses on economic, labor and political issues that affect working people, especially women and those in low-wage sectors. She has been instrumental in campaigns to boost wages and working conditions, improve labor and civil rights protections for immigrants, rein in student debt and to hold corporations accountable for improper activities and practices.
Gwen K. Young, director of the Women in Public Service Project, gave a presentation about that group’s efforts to create the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative Index, an international index of women in public service.
Housed at the Wilson Center, a prominent Washington D.C.–based think tank, the project was founded in 2011 by Mount Holyoke, other Seven Sisters schools, and the State Department. The index draws from many sources to create a nuanced representation, not only of women’s participation in the public sphere, but also of factors that enhance or diminish women’s access to power.
Tips of the trade
As to what careers in public service students should seek and what they could expect, Hayley Zachary ’02 offered five rules of thumb for students to follow.
“The first is that internships matter,” she said. “The second is that no task is too small. The third is that careers rarely follow a straight line. The fourth is that in public service, perfect solutions are sometimes impossible to achieve. And the fifth is that there is a large universe of alumnae around the world who will always be connected to you.”
“It was incredible to see how invested alums are in our success,” said Upasana Sharma ’18, an international relations major. “They truly want to see us become pioneers in public service and are so willing to help us every step of the way.”
Students and alumnae alike also learned about the College’s MHC Semester in DC, a new program that gives students an opportunity to study and intern in Washington, D.C. for a semester. The program is directed by Calvin Chen, associate professor of politics. The first cohort will attend in the fall.
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