Second Dispatch from The Women in Public Service Project Colloquium
Published: Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Updated: Thursday, December 15, 2011 18:12
After we got into D.C. and settled into our hotel rooms, we had some downtime before our first event at eight. Elizabeth "Bethy" Williams '13 and my roommate and fellow press pool comrade Sophie Bodnar '12 decided alongside myself to skip the hassle of finding a restaurant and to instead cook dinner in our tiny hotel kitchen. We wandered down New Hampshire Avenue until we found a Safeway and bought pasta, vodka sauce and Parmesan cheese.
Back at the hotel, we spent two hours waiting for the water to boil - terrible stovetop burners - and talking about the next 36 hours. We dressed for the reception and headed downstairs, where Mount Holyoke S.G.A. members were greeting girls from Barnard, Bryn Mawr and Wellesley. Sophie set up her camera and we watched as our "sisters" filed in the room.
So Jin Lee '13, Mount Holyoke's student body president, got up and introduced the speaker for the evening, the State Department's Special Representative to Muslim Communities and Smith alumnae Farah Pandith '89. Pandith, we learned, was born in Kashmir and raised in Massachusetts. At Smith, she double-majored in government and psychology and was S.G.A. president. She then worked in the private sector in Boston for many years before getting her masters degree from Tufts' Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, specializing in international security, Islamic studies and international negotiations and conflict resolution. From there she went on to work for USAID, the National Security Council and finally the State Department.
After Lee's introduction, Pandith took the podium and immediately transfixed a room full of over 100 antsy 20-somethings. She spoke about how receptive the Seven Sisters' college presidents had been when she met with them at Wellesley two years ago to pitch the idea for the Women in Public Service Project: "We need to do more, [the presidents] all said," said Pandith, "to encourage women to go into public service. We cannot advise a president or a secretary of state or whoever the principal is without diversity—and not just gender diversity."
"I was once in a meeting - I have a very clear memory of this," said Pandith. "A meeting in the Situation Room [in the White House] about counterterrorism, and I was speaking and suddenly I was looking around the table and realizing that everyone at the table was male. And everyone standing around the table was male and I thought, what is going on here?"
Pandith spoke briefly about her time at Smith, saying that it influenced her significantly. During her junior year, a series of nasty racial incidents took place across colleges in the Northeast - "someone at Amherst burned a cross on the law, something happened at Yale, and at Smith a woman of color was left a disgusting, hateful note" - and this weighed heavily on her mind as she started her senior year as S.G.A. president. "How do I set the tone?" she said, referring to the speech she would make at Convocation. But that year, Smith invited alumna Barbara Bush to speak at Convocation, and the White House asked for a copy of Pandith's speech.
"Barbara Bush liked something in my speech," she said, "and we began a correspondence. I would write her and she would write handwritten notes back. And when I was about to graduate, I wrote her about a job and she wrote back saying ‘Farah, I don't know where the jobs are and I don't know how to get them, but why don't you come meet with me and my chief of staff?"
"Two first ladies helped me," said Pandith, referring to Bush and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, under whom she now serves, and who created the position of Special Representative for Pandith. "Two first ladies who came out of women's colleges. There is no roadmap for public service - it shouldn't be hard to figure it out - but I believe you need mentors." She cites this as the inspiration for the W.P.S. Project.