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PLEN seminars encourage, empower next generation of women policymakers

Zahra Wako '14 had the chance to tour the National Institute of Health and meet with female scientists during January's PLEN seminar.
Zahra Wako '14 had the chance to tour the National Institute of Health and meet with female scientists during January's PLEN seminar.
Photo supplied

Ask any highly successful female leader, and she’ll likely tell you that life sometimes has a funny way of getting in the way of a clear-cut path to your “dream career” — and that’s perfectly okay. This life lesson was one of the important themes that came out of the Public Leadership Education Network’s (PLEN) Science and Health Policy Seminar in Washington, D.C.

“While it’s important to stay committed and dedicated to my passions and goals, they also taught me to embrace change that comes with life. Often we struggle because things don’t go as planned, so the path to success is different for everyone,” says Zahra Wako ’14, one of two St. Kate’s public health students who attended the January seminar.

With the sole focus of preparing college women for leadership in the public policy arena, PLEN offers six seminars annually, each broadly addressing a specific set of policy issues.

Most students who attended January’s Science and Health Policy Seminar are health science majors whose work to date has largely been in the classroom or lab. For many, it was the first time they connected their studies to policy.

“The students remarked on how they never realized how many scientists work within government agencies,” says Dawn Culpepper, director of programs and operations for PLEN.

“They connected with women doing bio-fuel research for the U.S. Department of Energy, with trained medical doctors who were doing research at the National Institutes of Health and all of this work informs policy, changes policy — and in particular, science and health policy,” adds Culpepper.

For Kristine Lee ’14, the experience emphasized the important role of policy in her field of study.

Zahra Wako and Kristine Lee“Even though you think your career might not be related to policy, it is. It’s through policy-making that research and public health programs are funded,” says Lee.

While Lee doesn’t picture herself in Washington — she’d rather focus her work in the Twin Cities’ vibrant Hmong community — she did leave the seminar with a greater sense of her own power.

“You do have a voice. If you are working with patients and see an issue or trend that needs to be addressed, you can speak out about it. It might not be easy, and change isn’t going to happen tomorrow, but there’s always that hope that speaking up will make a difference,” she says.

Seminar participants were encouraged to dream large, but focus goals in the short term. Wako wants to work in a clinic or nonprofit to combat non-communicable diseases, and sees prevention as key to addressing many of the nation’s health problems.

“We’re spending so much money on curative care and our healthcare costs are skyrocketing. Other developing countries are spending more than we are on preventative care. That’s just crazy. We’re one of the most developed countries — why are we not practicing that? We have the tools,” she says.

One of the single most important aspects of the seminar for Lee and Wako was walking away with a network of contacts that they can call upon for career advice and connections, including established, successful female scientists and lawmakers. 

“That’s really what this seminar is all about — women coming together to support the next generation of women policymakers,” says Culpepper.

Katie leaders

Several notable alumnae attended PLEN seminars during their time at St. Kate's, including:

  • Clara Burgert ’03, international relations, Phi Beta Kappa
    Epidemiologist, ICF International; GIS lead for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s MEASURE project.
    Burgert has also sponsored other PLEN participants.
  • Claire Fromme ’09, international relations
    2013 Kent C. Berg Organizer of the Year Award recipient
  • Jamila Larson '95, social work
    Co-founder and executive director of the Homeless Children's Playtime Project in Washington, D.C.
  • Laurie Nelson Halverson '01, political science 
    Member of the Minnesota House of Representative (51B).
  • Alison Palacios ’08, economics and international relations, Phi Beta Kappa, Fulbright scholar
    Economic analyst, UnitedHealth Group

PLEN Scholarships

Since 1989, the Abigail Quigley McCarthy Center for Women at St. Kate's has sponsored annual scholarships for students to attend the Public Leadership Education Network (PLEN) national seminars in Washington, DC.

“The PLEN seminar experience is life changing and horizon-widening for our students, as they expand their views of their own potential and learn strategies for pursuing their goals in public life,” says Sia Vang, program coordinator for the women’s center.

One to two scholarships per seminar are offered for the following PLEN seminars:

• Women’s Leadership in Public Policy (January);

• Science and Health Policy: Critical Issues (January); and

• Women and Policy in the Global Community (May).

PLEN seminar scholarships cover registration, lodging, airfare, ground transportation and food (up to $1,200). The next scholarship deadline is coming up in March for the Women and Policy in the Global Community seminar held May 19–23.

Both Lee and Wako say it's worth attending PLEN seminars, even when scholarships aren’t available.

“It definitely brings out the person inside you — who you are — and teaches you how to navigate your career goals. Even if I didn’t get the scholarship, I would have paid out of pocket to attend,” says Wako.

Feb. 18, 2014 by Sharon Rolenc

See also: Alumnae/i, Healthcare, Leadership, Social Justice, Students