Some of the best learning happens outside the classroom, and that is especially true for Sweet Briar students during what has become an annual pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. Instead of using spring break to head home or to warmer climates, a group of about 20 students headed to Capitol Hill for tours, job shadowing, networking and advice. Barb Watts, who leads Sweet Briar’s Office of Career Services, and a host of alumnae, including Katie Schellhammer ’95 and Suzanne Ullrich ’78, came together to make it happen. Schellhammer and Ullrich are co-chairs of the Networking Group of the Alumnae Alliance Council.
The trip began with a dinner and reception with more than 30 D.C.-area alumnae — just the first of several opportunities to meet alumnae and get advice about the next phase of life. The next morning, Karen Williams-Wickre ’84 hosted the group for breakfast at the Capitol Hill Club.
Williams-Wickre has extensive experience with legislative and regulatory issues in both the legislative and executive branches. She observed that working with students is the most important role for alumnae. “You inspire us,” she told the assembled students. She also noted that their careers would take “twists and turns you don’t anticipate. Those are opportunities.”
Chrissy Rabuse ’18, who was a student on this same trip just last year and is now the majority staff assistant at the United States Senate, joined the students for breakfast. Last year’s trip made her want to work on Capitol Hill. She acknowledged that there is a steep learning curve and that there are things you can’t learn in government class. “Running letters for co-sponsors was eye-opening,” she said. But she enjoys having access to members of Congress and seeing them in real life instead of just on TV.
After a group photo on the steps of the Capitol, one group headed to the Library of Congress. There, Phoebe Brunner Peacock ’68, who is retired from the library where she worked as a classics reference specialist, and Constance Carter, a Smith College graduate who has worked at the library for 53 years, led the group on a backstage tour. Carter was charming and full of stories. “Being a librarian is the best job,” she told the group. “You give me a name and I’ll get you a book. I love helping researchers who have hit a wall. It’s a wonderful occupation.”
The other group went on a tour of the Capitol Building with a guide who graduated with a degree in history from Randolph-Macon College. “She was excited to be touring the Sweet Briar students,” said Watts. “She spent time talking to them about what they could do with a history or liberal arts degree if they had an interest in museums or art history. She also talked to them about navigating the federal jobs hiring process.”
After lunch, the groups headed to the Senate side of the Capitol. Joined by an alumna from the Class of 1990 and Meg Murphy, chief of protocol for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, they spent a few minutes sitting around the table that belongs to the foreign relations committee. It was a moving experience, in part because the committee has produced seven presidents and 20 secretaries of state. The visit to the committee room was possible because Mary Pope M. Hutson ’83 is friends with Murphy.
That was echoed by Julie Moorhead Devine ’13, who serves as the legislative director for Congressman Sam Graves of Missouri. “Master the entry-level job,” she said. “Show your boss that you are worthy of getting promoted. You do not need a political science degree to succeed here.” What’s more important? Setting aside your personal feelings to serve your constituents. “This is a civil service job,” she explained. “Idealism is great, but we are civil servants.”
A trip to the office of Ben Cline, who represents Sweet Briar’s district, rounded out the first day. Cline’s senior legislative assistant, Hallie Pence, a graduate of the University of Virginia, talked about the importance of building strong relationships with everyone on Capitol Hill, especially those on the other side of the political aisle. “That’s how things get done,” she said.
On the second day, the group once again split into two. One headed to the White House for a tour arranged by Teresa Papaleo ’08. The other group went to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where they had a chance to meet with Mary Bates Washington, a friend of Watts’s. Washington joined the group for lunch and talked about her time growing up in D.C., along with her work with George McGovern, Bob Dole, Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson. “It was the perfect way to top off our tour of the museum,” Watts said.
After lunch, the group visited Eleanor O’Connor ’07, who is the managing director of Cato Books at the Cato Institute. Schellhammer was with them. “Eleanor and her colleague educated the students about the broad role of think tanks and the multitude of career opportunities they have to offer,” she said. “Suzanne Ullrich’s nephew Liam Donovan talked about his career in lobbying and media. A truly educational experience!”
The trip is a collective effort on the part of the many alumnae who set up visits and tours, as well as those who hosted students in their homes. “Our tight-knit alumnae network has been in place for generations, and so many alumnae have benefited from it,” Schellhammer said. “Career networking provides the opportunity to ‘pass it on’ and is an alternative means for alumnae to stay engaged and give back to their beloved college that launched them into their careers. It’s their way of saying thanks. It is such a joy to meet our brilliant students in person and watch their faces light with excitement at all the people and places they are visiting. We can watch them dream and see the endless possibilities that await them.”
Many thanks to Christina Lytle ’88, Christina Mulvihill ’88 and Janet Rakoczy ’78, who hosted students during their stay in the city.
The students who participated in the trip were Taylor Allen ’20, Samantha Baker ’19, Sophia Barbieri ’19, Amelia Currin ’19, Brianna Garcia ’20, Margaret Lamphier- Meier ’20, Caroline Potts ’21, McKenna Snyder ’20, Kayleigh Bekisz ’20, Cassidy Bodkin ’20, Olivia Byrd ’19, Cailey Cobb ’20, Rachel Ewing ’21, Diana Nguyen-Cruz ’20, Arialle Perry ’19, Arlen Pippin ’20, Jade Smith ’19, Anastacia Tristan ’20, Kayley Tuite ’20, Katherine Martin ’20, Victoria Stacpoole ’20 and Alexa Wright ’20.