Powerhouses of the public sector

As part of the annual Careers in Public Service trip to Washington D.C., Mount Holyoke students met with alums who have forged brilliant public service careers as well as Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.

The 34 Mount Holyoke College students who traveled to Washington, D.C., on March 14–15, 2024, were expecting to network with alums who forged brilliant careers in the public sector. After all, that is one of the core tenets of the Careers in Public Service annual trip, organized by the Weissman Center for Leadership. The students also knew that they would get handy hints for job searching, roommate hunting and navigating living in the nation’s capital.

This year, however, the students got to meet and talk to another powerhouse — Supreme Court Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Justice Jackson would be meeting with the Mount Holyoke students at the Supreme Court on March 15.

President Holley’s second home

On the first night of the trip, students and the Washington, D.C., alum chapter met for dinner and networking at the National Press Club, where President Danielle R. Holley addressed the assembled Mount Holyoke community.

“It is wonderful to be here at my second home,” she said. Holley, who was dean at the Howard University School of Law before becoming Mount Holyoke’s twentieth president, called the D.C. chapter “incredibly vibrant.”

“D.C. is my intellectual home,” she added. Here, she said, she was “inspired to teach students not just for themselves, but so students can reshape their communities.”

President Holley continued, “A liberal arts education is the foundation” of whatever students want to do with their lives. She herself opted to get a bachelor’s degree in history before continuing to study law. “I knew that through studying history, I could succeed in any field.”

She called upon alums to give their “time, talent and treasure” to help place students in jobs, to assist them in graduate school applications and to steward the beloved Mount Holyoke campus.

“As an alum I remember the excitement and the anxiety that comes with preparing to end your journey at Mount Holyoke, but I also know firsthand the power of a Mount Holyoke education and of our alum network to shape the trajectory of our students’ careers,” said Lydia Malone ’13, associate director of the Weissman Center for Leadership. “Careers in Public Service is a shining example of how the Mount Holyoke network fosters a sense of belonging and opens doors to new possibilities and collaborations that can propel our students and their careers to new heights.”

The Supreme Court

The next day, the students got career advice with a side of scrambled eggs and breakfast potatoes. The Weissman Center hosted a breakfast career panel with recent alums Robin Kerr ’21, Liz Brown ’20, Nausheen Khan ’11, Francesca Eremeeva ’20 and Marissa Johnson ’18.

Eremeeva credited her MHC Semester in D.C. connections for landing well, even during COVID-19, “when everything fell apart.” Other panelists also cited skills they built when they were on campus with helping their careers.

“A lot of things I do go back to Mount Holyoke,” said Khan. The alums listed leadership skills, ability to pivot and even administrative prowess as being engines to their career success.

Later that day there would be a lunchtime keynote speech from Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, as well as a panel discussion with D. Paul Monteiro, the Secretary of Service and Civic Innovation for the state of Maryland, Naomi Barry-Perez ’96, the director of civil rights at the Department of Labor and Danielle Germain ’93, the principal at The Cadmus Group.

But for now, after a flurry of networking and exchange of business cards, it was time to depart for the Supreme Court.

After a lecture from a docent in the intimate space of the Court itself, students were ushered to a private room where they met with Justice Jackson.

Jackson perched on a desk and chatted about being the newest Supreme Court justice. “The justices sit in hierarchical order,” she said. “I’m the newest, and so I sit on the far right, and I like it!” She said that Justice Barrett, the second-newest justice, told her that she “missed it.”

Imari Williams ’26 asked Justice Jackson, “How is it, being in [this] role in white-dominated spaces, and how do you overcome it?”

“I don’t dwell on it,” Jackson answered. “I’m focused on the work.” She said the pressure is enormous. Yet, at the same time, “You keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

She continued, “You do your best and you don’t worry about being different. The Court is very august and beautiful — when I was a clerk here, you spend a lot of time reflecting on the scene.

“It is a little daunting. I do feel something when I say ‘we’ decided in 1825 or whatever, because I’m now a part of this institution. If I do my job right, it won’t be so much of an issue going forward,” she said.

She also spoke about learning to operate in the realm of collective decision-making.

“I have to pick and choose my battles,” she said. She laughed. “My husband said, ‘That’s a challenge in process.’

“One of the skills you learn as a lawyer is the skill of compartmentalizing. When you’re a law clerk, you develop this skill. You learn it through the process.” Jackson said that the justices have lunch together after arguments and that they have to get along as colleagues even if they deeply disagree.

“But there are other outlets besides compartmentalization — I also have a boxing coach!” she told the Mount Holyoke students.

Sarahjeen Paul ’25 had a special connection with Justice Jackson — Jackson is an alum of Miami Palmetto Senior High School, as is Paul and many of her family and friends. When Paul mentioned that during the meeting, Jackson screamed happily and the two held hands and had a short dance of elation.

“I was not expecting her to be so excited to hear about our connection, but I am so happy she was!” said Paul. “I got a little personal ‘bye’ as well. I almost lost my sight because it was so unexpected! It was so nice to see and feel a piece of home during this trip.”

“It is hard to overstate how transformative it is for students to meet and to engage with inspiring and distinguished leaders in government and public service,” said Director of the Weissman Center for Leadership Amy E. Martin. “They had the life-changing opportunity to hear the wisdom of Justice Brown Jackson, Assistant Attorney General Clarke, Secretary Monteiro and members of our extraordinary alum network — experiences that allow students to imagine themselves shattering glass ceilings and having a huge impact on the world and the communities in which they live. We also want them to have time in the nation's capital so that they can understand the power and influence of Mount Holyoke alums at the national and international levels.”


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