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Bryn Mawr College partners with State Department to expand women in public service

Bryn Mawr College's involvement with the Women in Public Service Project headed by the U.S. Department of State came to fruition for some undergraduates at the colloquium held Dec. 15 in Washington, D.C.

When Bryn Mawr College senior Meheret Shumet heard murmurs about the Women in Public Service Project hosting a kick-off colloquium in Washington D.C., she was determined to figure out a way to go and learn more about the project.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the WPSP back in March 2011, but after the announcement on the public stage, things got quiet. Together, the U.S. Department of State and the Seven Sisters colleges – Bernard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith and Wellesley, Clinton's alma mater – would aim to foster connections amongst women working in the public sector and women who will some day assume positions of leadership worldwide.

"Bryn Mawr spoke a little bit about the project last year, but it was kind of like, 'Hey, it's something to look forward to for school year,'" said Shumet, who is a political science major whose ambitions include someday working for the State Department.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, representatives from the Sister colleges and the State Department worked tirelessly to figure out the logistics of the morning-long colloquium, which would serve as an opening day of sorts for WPSP. Initially scheduled for early fall, Clinton's demanding schedule pushed it back to Dec. 15.

The website would launch that day, and it would serve as a platform to announce everything the project had in store for its pilot year: A summer institute at Wellesley for 50 promising women in leadership from North Africa and India – in 2013, the Bryn Mawr will host the institute – and a chance to further voice WPSP's vision.

"We wanted to hold a colloquium to bring visibility to the issue of vast underrepresentation of women in elected seats," Secretary of the College for Bryn Mawr Ruth Lindeborg said.

Worldwide, women make up more than 50 percent of the population, but account for 20 percent of parliamentary seats.

President of Bryn Mawr Jane McAuliffe appointed Lindeborg as a representative for the college in March when the Sister colleges signed a memorandum of understanding with the State Department, though the conversation about Bryn Mawr's involvement with WPSP began a year ago in December 2010.

By the time the date was set for the colloquium, Lindeborg had to figure out which undergraduate students she could invite. With alumnae and college administrators attending, seating at the State Department was limited. The State Department specifically asked for student government representatives, but after a few slots opened up, Lindeborg worked with senior and Student Government Alliance President Yong Jung Cho to identify student leaders on campus. A total of 17 Bryn Mawr undergraduates – including Shumet – were bussed to the capital amidst the whirlwind of finals week.

The colloquium brought together undergraduates and alumnae from all five of the Sister colleges, as well as women in positions of public service power from the U.S. and countries such as Liberia, Kosovo and France.

Senior political science major Ntshadi Mofokeng, who hails from South Africa, even introduced the last speaker, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

"She offered so much encouragement and reminded us there's still so much work to be done for women in leadership," Mofokeng said.

Managing Director of International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde's willingness to help promote other women stood out to Mofokeng as a way to continue to progress.

When Lagarde was the minister of finance to France, she said there was a huge push for women to be on the boards of major companies, but she continually heard from male leaders that they simply couldn't find any. After hearing the same excuse, Lagarde compiled a list of capable women, and when male CEOs or board members said they couldn't find any women, she said, "Oh, I have a list. You can pick."

A senior political science major, Isel Otero-Vera said Bryn Mawr already puts a lot of focus on the solidarity network between women, and the colloquium reinforced the college's message, but it also answered questions she had about how to enter that network within the public sector specifically. Farah Pandith, the State Department's special representative to Muslim communities, offered a perspective Otero-Vera found memorable at a dessert gathering held on the eve of the colloquium.

"She said we needed to volunteer, stay involved and not forget about our community," Otero-Vera said.

"There is an importance to creating this solidarity network among women," Otero-Vera said, noting that hopefully, the women who sat in the audience two weeks ago would be the women speaking on stage as time passes. "We are underrepresented, and it's so important to help each other out and create the network while we're young."

For Lindeborg, seeing Bryn Mawr students interact at the colloquium exemplified what the college stands for.

"There is a stunning number of students who are really committed to public service," Lindeborg said. "It's a very distinctive part about them and their education here."