Compete. Be your own advocate. Don’t be afraid to say yes to opportunities that you may not think you’re prepared for; don’t even fear failure.

These were some of the messages delivered to students, alumnae, trustees, and faculty from the five remaining Seven Sisters Colleges—Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Vassar—who participated in the launch of The Women in Public Service Project, a major initiative of the U.S. Department of State in partnership with these schools. More than 40 members of the Barnard community, including board members of the Alumnae Association, joined women from around the world at an all-day event on December 15, in Washington, D.C. The colloquium featured Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde, elected women leaders from around the world, American women politicians, prominent women from the armed services, and founding second-wave feminists such as Gloria Steinem.

“We want to tackle this critical issue, to have more women inspired and empowered to participate fully in the governance of their nations,” said Secretary Clinton. “There are many ways women can serve. You don’t have to be president or prime minister or party leader to serve. There are many benefits of bringing more women into public service. We need a broader range of expertise as we work to solve our problems. We need more women at the table, expanding the pool of talented people.”

The Women in Public Service Project is intended to develop a new generation of women leaders from around the world. There will be a major educational program, starting with a pilot summer institute to be held at Wellesley in 2012. This initiative, which will provide training in public speaking, leadership, and strategic thinking, will rotate among the other founding women’s colleges in the partnership in future years. Other measures will include grants from the State Department for academic research into the issue of women in public service, an online mentoring program, and partnerships with businesses. As Clinton asserted, the project will “build a large, unprecedented public movement to support more women into public governance.”

For the past several years, Barnard College has been at the forefront of the effort to promote and encourage women leaders with innovative programs, and with President Debora Spar’s focus on Barnard’s global presence. The College has been offering leadership training and opportunities to young women leaders around the world in a variety of ways. Some of its groundbreaking initiatives may prove to be models for the project and the other sisters. The Global Symposia bring together regional women leaders and students for all-day panels and discussions. To date these symposia have been held in Beijing, Dubai, South Africa, and this spring, in Mumbai. Also at Barnard, The Athena Center for Leadership Studies trains and develops women leaders from the earliest ages throughout their careers, and the Visiting International Student Program (VISP), offers Barnard’s singular educational experience to young women from other countries.

“Graduates of women’s colleges are disproportionately represented in public service and have entered public life from the beginning as pioneers in public service,” said Vice President for College Relations Dorothy Denburg, at the Kennedy Center lunch for the participants. “We’ve produced a long and impressive list of firsts. We’re focused on expanding the network of women in public service.”

Still, there was no denying that simply being among such a critical mass of influential women in public service as well as meeting alumnae and student peers was a heady experience. “The accumulation of so many powerful, successful women yielded striking similarities across experiences, all of which produced advice that stressed a bolder, braver approach to the world that is so often lacking,” posted Barnard student attendee Adair Kleinpeter-Ross ’14. “It opened my eyes to a whole new realm of service that is powerful, as increased numbers of women in public service will change the decisions that are being made between countries, change policy, and really change the world.”

As Malvina Kefalas ’14 wrote, “Public service doesn’t simply happen: committed, thoughtful individuals must enter into it to make an impact on society…. Even in an inaugural session, these resources were present. Being able to network with and, quite frankly, even to speak to some of the women in the room was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Alumnae responded similarly. “As an alumnae leader who is also a public servant, the event brought those two roles of my life together,” said Peri Horowitz ’96, chair of the Alumnae Association’s professional and leadership development committee, who is the director of special compliance and policy for the New York City Campaign Finance Board. “The range of public service represented in the attendees was humbling and the barriers other women face are unimaginable to me. I was very proud to be part of Barnard’s delegation to the event and I hope that Barnard will be able to involve the many alumnae who are quietly doing all sorts of valuable public service on their local levels in future project initiatives.”

Reeva Mager ’64, chair of the Project Continuum committee and director of a social services agency DOROT East in New York, added, “The opportunity to be together solidified my thoughts about the importance of volunteerism. I am proud of Barnard’s role and was proud to represent us there.”

For many of the students, seeing mentorship in action and networking at the highest levels was undeniably exhilarating. “I can say with conviction that this experience was, thus far, the highlight of my Barnard career,” affirmed Shilpa Guha ’12, who interviewed White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett on stage as part of the Colloquium program. “As a student, to be able to witness living proof of this ‘pathway’ that has been paved for us, the next generation, I [feel] really compelled to continue the legacy.”

—by Merri Rosenberg ’78

Read student reflections and watch the colloquium in its entirety.