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March 26 , 2004

My Administrative Fellowship at South Hadley Town Hall

By Cara Cookson ’04

When I started my senior year at Mount Holyoke, my idea of success as a politics major required a top-level job in Washington DC. Though I’m still headed to DC after graduation, I now know that you don’t have to go very far to meet people who challenge your view of the world, and you don’t have to work in the White House to learn something about politics.

During my four years at the College, I have interned for both a U.S. senator and a member of the Scottish Parliament. However, those experiences didn’t have the same impact on my understanding of government that my administrative fellowship at the South Hadley Town Hall had. Though Mount Holyoke offers excellent courses on national and international political topics, we tend to take local government for granted.

With so many opportunities to get involved on campus, it’s easy for us at Mount Holyoke to find a routine and never really see what’s immediately outside the gates. I applied for the administrative fellowship position as a way to make connections in the community and tie together my previous experience.

South Hadley has just over 17,000 residents. The town celebrated its 250th anniversary last year, and it still governs itself according to the New England tradition of town meetings. Five elected officials sit on the board of selectmen who oversee town government and carry out town business throughout the year. The selectmen hire a town administrator to manage the town’s 60-plus employees and coordinate the board’s efforts. As administrative fellow, I serve as an intern in the town administrator’s office located at the South Hadley Town Hall, a converted school building in South Hadley Falls.

Mount Holyoke is the second-largest taxpayer in South Hadley, and our campus occupies 800 acres of land within the town boundary. Though the town and the College support each other and benefit from their mutual relationship, students seldom consider the impact of Mount Holyoke’s growth and development on South Hadley itself. In thanking South Hadley’s civic leaders at a reception to celebrate the opening of Kendade, President Creighton explained that construction projects on campus require an enormous effort on the part of town government in the form of permitting, site inspections, and traffic accommodations. As we at the College eagerly await the 2004 U.S. Women’s Open at The Orchards this summer, South Hadley town officials and business owners are bringing to fruition several years’ worth of preparations. The population of South Hadley and the surrounding area will increase by tens of thousands during the week of the tournament, requiring accommodation, parking, and attention to public safety.

Residents notice small changes, too. Over J-Term, a town employee surprised me when she asked if Mount Holyoke students were on vacation. When I asked her how she knew, she explained that she hadn’t needed to stop for students crossing Route 116 on her way to work that morning. I had never considered how even our walking behavior has an effect on our neighbors’ lives.

In February, I made a presentation to the board of selectmen, summarizing the efforts of my first semester at the Town Hall. I described my survey research project on the operations, management, and financing of the South Hadley recreation department and its relationship to the parks division of the department of public works. Since arriving at Mount Holyoke, I have completed my fair share of research projects and class presentations. Writing and speaking takes on a completely new meaning when it’s no longer just theoretical, and your work has a direct relevance to actual policy making. Knowing that a document I prepared will impact the decisions of the board of selectmen and the lives of South Hadley citizens carried quite a weight as I plotted my analysis and drafted my recommendations. In retrospect, the sense of accomplishment that comes from such pressure brings with it a new confidence that even my best academic work cannot match.

Aside from the professional benefits of my administrative fellowship, I also feel a step closer to knowing what it means to be a part of a community as an adult. I constantly see familiar faces in the grocery store. I pause on Channel 15, the community cable access channel, when I watch TV. I spent J-Term as a volunteer basketball coach for the fifth- and sixth-grade suburban girls’ team. As I prepare to enter the “real world” after graduation, I think about my future much differently. Maybe I won’t go to Washington, DC, after graduation and find a job working for policy makers or lobbyists. If I do, I’ll have in mind the ripple that even the smallest change can create, and I’ll remember that the purpose of representative democracy is to connect people to the decisions that affect them.





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