In the room where it happens

Mount Holyoke students in the pilot MHC Semester in D.C. program began by meeting with Rep. Nita Lowey ’59 and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

If Democrats win back the House in 2018, a Mount Holyoke College alumna will likely be at the helm of the most powerful committee in the House of Representatives. 

Rep. Nita Lowey ’59 is currently the ranking member of the House Appropriations committee, and with an elevation to majority, would chair the committee responsible for the federal budget. 

Despite her busy schedule, the New York Democrat recently met with the inaugural cohort of the MHC Semester in D.C. program. The five participating seniors, who were selected after a lengthy competitive application process, live, work and study government and public policy in the city. The pilot program is administered through the College’s Weissman Center for Leadership

The students couldn’t have picked a better time to be in the nation’s capital. In the first of several site visits this fall, Associate Professor of Politics Calvin Chen, who directs MHC Semester in D.C., accompanied them on their visit with Lowey and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi is poised to again become house speaker if Democrats win the majority in November.

Rep. Nita Lowey '59 and students

As she approached the students waiting in the wood-paneled Rayburn Reception Room, just steps off the floor of the House Chamber, Pelosi proclaimed herself a huge fan of the College.

“I’m in the class!” she said, referencing her delivery of the 2018 Commencement address and the honorary degree she received.

“I am an honorary member of the Mount Holyoke family,” she said while posing for photos with the students and Chen. She also noted that Lowey is a close colleague and one of the people she leans on “to get things done.”

 A legacy of leadership

The students, who are all from the class of 2019, spoke with the two representatives about their internship locations this semester. The program is designed to facilitate students working not only in government, but also nonprofits, nongovernmental organizations and advocacy agencies.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi speaking with students

Angelica Mercado is interning in the office of Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts. Beth Wagoner is at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center under director Naomi Barry-Perez ’96 — and working in the Frances Perkins (class of 1902) Building.

Melissa Carney is at the National Council on Independent Living, Linh Nguyen is at the Wilson Center’s Global Women’s Leadership Initiative, and Jiayu Wang is interning at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

The students are being led in their studies by Chen, who commutes from South Hadley to Washington every three weeks to teach a seminar and help the students navigate their experience. When they aren’t at their internships, they take classes at the University of California Washington Center with students from Notre Dame and the universities of California, Michigan, Pennsylvania and San Francisco. The campus offers classrooms, workspace and dormitories and sits in Dupont Circle, at the heart of the city.

The program is the latest in Mount Holyoke’s long legacy of teaching and training women leaders, Chen noted.

“Professor Victoria Schuck started the first internship program of its kind in 1949,” he said, noting that it became a model for other colleges and universities. “The MHC Semester in D.C. program is a return to the tradition she helped establish, as well as an opportunity for the next generation of thoughtful, skilled women leaders to tackle the daunting challenges facing the country and, indeed, the world.”

In her remarks to the students, Lowey fondly remembered how Schuck attended her swearing-in ceremony and brought with her a paper that then student Lowey had written. Lowey credited her professor and mentor with opening her eyes to the possibilities for careers in public service.

Semester in DC students taking a selfie and then in front of the capitol building

In the room where it happens

During her talk with the students, Lowey was interrupted by a staffer who handed her a phone, saying, “confidential call.” The aide then addressed the students, saying “Ladies, I am going to have to ask you to step out of the room for a minute.”

“Oh, stay where you are!” Lowey offered as she strategized with a colleague. The students had a front row seat.

Beth Wagoner had a chance to speak with Lowey about refugee policy under the current administration. Wagoner had volunteered at a refugee resettlement center in her home state of Indiana over the summer. She was very impressed with Lowey’s negotiations.

After Lowey left the room to go vote, Wagoner quietly remarked with admiration to Chen, “That was insane. She’s a powerhouse.”

Powerhouses have to start somewhere, and Mount Holyoke was the place for Lowey, who is squarely focused on the election and the work she is championing, now and once November has passed. “Our best chance for the future is electing women,” she said.

Five new leaders were learning the ropes in the room that day, and, exemplifying the College’s deeply loyal alumnae, Pelosi left them with this:

“Mount Holyoke is blessed to have all of you. But I want you to know that you are blessed to have it as an institution. It is a wonderful place.”