Students in Washington DC

On Thursday, December 15, a dozen Barnard students traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in the Women in Public Service Project Colloquium, a day-long event kicking off a new collaboration between the Seven Sister Colleges and the U.S. Department of State. This initiative is aimed at encouraging young women from around the world to pursue leadership in public service, politics, and government. The Barnard students in attendance were invited based on their academic and extracurricular interests in these fields.  Speakers included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, and President Atifete Jahjaga, the Republic of Kosova’s first female and youngest elected world leader. 

“The opportunity to network with and, quite frankly, even speak to some of the women in the room was a once in a lifetime experience,” said Malvina Helene Kefalas ’14.

Shilpa Guha ’12, a political science and human-rights major, had the opportunity to conduct an on-stage interview with White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, who spoke about mentorship as an important vehicle for bringing more women into public service, as well as her unique role in the careers of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

With so many high-ranking public service officials in the room, it was no surprise that the challenge of being “first” was a primary theme of the day. Christine Lagarde, who served as France’s first female minister of economic affairs before becoming the IMF’s first woman leader, advised aspiring young women  to “take the bashing, grit your teeth and smile, because there will be others after you.” Lagarde’s comment resonated with Angelica Lopez ’13. “She made me realize that although being the first to do something will always come with a great deal of controversy and opposition, the ability to take this risk and cope with its outcome will open a new opportunity for any woman who wants to occupy the same role in the future,” said Lopez, a Spanish and Latin American cultures major. 

Kefalas agreed, noting that the colloquium illustrated the importance of women helping other women along the way. “There is a social element to creating a community of female public servants,” she said. “I hope that by fostering the relationships available to women involved with this project, we are able to have meaningful, productive discussions about public service, as well as create a means to do this for other women.”

For Adair Kleinpeter-Ross ’14, an art history major with concentrations in the visual arts and political science, the event revealed what success can look like for women in public service. “Public service is hardly a new field, [there are] many male role models,” she said. “But to have so many powerful, successful women there in person, representing the opportunities available to women in this line of work, was really transformative. The experience changed the way I project and imagine myself and my career goals.”

Before the colloquium, Sara Payne ’13, a biology major and Spanish minor, didn’t necessarily see public service as part of her expected career path. But after attending a panel discussion featuring alumnae of the Seven Sister Colleges, she had a clearer understanding of how other women found their way into public service, and her own ideas for the future seemed more fluid. “Listening to the different panelists, I realized that the notion of “the dream job” does not really exist. Despite their different paths, through trial and error as well as exploration of interests, these women found their niche in public service,” said Payne, noting that the panelists all stressed the importance of taking risks and facing failures.

Kefalas’ most significant takeaway was a sense of personal responsibility to consider a career in public service, particularly as a woman. “Public service doesn't simply happen: committed, thoughtful individuals must enter into it to make an impact on society,” she observed. “For a multitude of reasons, public service isn’t attracting as many women as it could. In order to ensure that our society is thriving, we must give the “other half” of the population the tools to see not only the power of public service, but also to see themselves as powerful enough to be a part of it.”

Watch the full proceedings of the Women in Public Service Project Colloquium: