Students bond with alumnae in public service

The Careers in Public Service two-day event included a panel of alumnae sharing their experiences in public service.

By Kevin McCaffrey 

In what has become an annual tradition exemplifying Mount Holyoke College’s commitment to expand the role of women in public service, 28 students traveled to Washington, D.C., in early March to meet and network with alumnae leaders who are dealing with some of today’s most challenging public policy issues. 

This year’s participants are among the 130 Mount Holyoke students who have participated in the College’s Careers in Public Service site visit program since its launch in 2011. Previous years have included visits to New York City, Boston and Albany. 

These trips are a key component of the Weissman Center’s Leadership and Public Service program, which trains and inspires students to pursue careers in government, politics, policy and advocacy, and to seek elected office — areas in which women are underrepresented both nationally and internationally. 

The two-day trip included a tour of the U.S. Capitol, made possible by Rep. Nita Lowey ’59, a Democrat from New York, who urged the students to “pursue your dreams to make your community, your country and the world a better place.” 

Other events included an evening reception with alumnae and a lunch with donors who have endowed scholarship funds — with 59 percent of Mount Holyoke students receiving need-based aid, these funds are more critical than ever — and panel discussions with alumnae on how to build careers in public service. 

Acting President Sonya Stephens spoke to the importance of the College’s leadership in public service, which alumnae deeply support. 

“We are committed to being responsive to what is happening in the world,” Stephens said, thanking the donors. “We have to do more in a changing world to put research and good thinking into action. Your contributions make what we do possible.” 

Alumnae act as as inspiring and life-changing role models for Mount Holyoke students, said Janet Lansberry, associate director of Weissman Center for Leadership and one of the event’s organizers. 

“We wondered if the recent election and political climate would result in fewer students being interested in public service,” Lansberry said. “In fact, it appears to be just the opposite. Students are emboldened and more committed than ever to contribute to the public good and to be leaders in their communities, states, countries — and the world.” 

This year’s students hailed from 11 states and six countries and are majoring in a variety of subjects, from Chinese and environmental studies to philosophy and neuroscience, Lansberry noted. 

Among them was Maryanne Magnier ’18, who described the two days as “incredible.” 

“It was so empowering — not only meeting these amazing women but simply feeling the strength of the alumnae network,” said Magnier, who is majoring in international relations and minoring in computer science. “It's comforting to know that as I climb up the ladder, there will be Mount Holyoke women at the top, reaching down with a hand to pull me up.” 

Leocadia Zak ’79, director of the United States Trade and Development Agency under President Barack Obama, was the keynote speaker at the lunch.  She spoke about how partnerships between U.S. industry and developing nations can create domestic and international opportunities and how her liberal arts education laid the broad foundation for her career. 

“The reason I ended up in public service is that I thought I would save the world,” Zak said. “I have not managed to save it yet, although I have not given up. But I have had the opportunity to experience the world, thanks to the skills I developed at Mount Holyoke.” 

The two alumnae panels explored how women can build meaningful careers in public service and several alumnae spoke to the strong grounding they got as students at the College. 

Mount Holyoke taught her not what to think but how to ask the right questions, said Christine E. Horansky ’04, a columnist for the Huffington Post. 

“Mount Holyoke women especially excel at blending fields, bringing gaps like those between policy and media,” she said. “Those points of innovation are where the magic happens.” 

Courtney Brunson ’16, who is a staff assistant to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, spoke at the alumnae reception. 

“My advice to you is to take advantage of every connection Mount Holyoke has to offer,” said Brunson, who attended the Careers in Public Service event in 2015 when it was in Boston. “I am sure I would not be where I am today were it not for every class, program, conference and opportunity.” 

A former Posse scholar, Brunson illustrates how Mount Holyoke helps its students position themselves for careers in public service. She built an extensive undergraduate resume that includes serving as the Student Government Association president; holding leadership positions in the Mount Holyoke College Model United Nations; serving as  award-winning president of the Debate Society; and working with Planned Parenthood, the NAACP and Women in Distress. 

The Alumnae Association and the College’s other centers — the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives, the Miller Worley Center for the Environment and the Career Development Center — also organized this year’s visit.

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