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Donna Shalala, a Syracuse University graduate and former U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services, offered career and networking advice for women in politics at a virtual event Wednesday.
Shalala served as secretary under former President Bill Clinton’s administration and was the first Lebanese American to serve in a presidential Cabinet. Former President George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008.
The Syracuse Chapter of the Women’s Network hosted the event, which was led by the organization’s president, Summer Cerbone.
When asked to offer one piece of advice to the audience, Shalala recommended to “never eat lunch at your desk.”
“Even if it’s a brown bag or you just meet for coffee, you have to keep networking,” Shalala said. “I say this to young people as they’re starting their careers.”
Meeting people and developing relationships is an essential part of building connections, which Shalala said has consistently opened doors to new opportunities in her career.
As a young woman pursuing her undergraduate education, Shalala never had a plan for her career. After her time in the Peace Corps, she followed her boyfriend to SU, where she enrolled in a master’s program in metropolitan studies and intended to be a journalist.
“People don’t necessarily have a strategy,” Shalala said. “I clearly did not have a strategy, either to be a college president or a member of the president’s cabinet. I really wanted to be a journalist.”
Shalala loved SU for the friends and connections she made and ended up staying to earn her doctorate degree at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She said she found she could make connections and meet interesting people just walking around the Maxwell building.
During her time at SU, Shalala was able to build her network and has always reached out to old friends and mentors for help whenever needed.
After college, Shalala had a hard time finding a job in journalism and later landed a teaching position at Columbia University, where she became involved in Democratic politics.
“A lot of this stuff was chance: I was inspired to join the Peace Corps, followed my boyfriend to Syracuse, decided to stick around, got a Ph.D., ended up as an academic,” Shalala said. “But none of this was planned. I tell people just be awake and take advantage of your opportunities.”
Before serving in the Clinton administration, Shalala was the leader of several colleges and universities. She became president of Hunter College after an old friend of one of her professors called her and suggested she interview for the position.
“It was chance,” Shalala said.
As chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Shalala was the first female head of a Big Ten Conference school and only the second woman in the country to head a major research university. Shalala also served as president of the University of Miami from 2001 to 2015.
Although she’s had moments in her career, particularly in politics, where she felt people did not take her seriously because she was a woman, she was often able to earn others’ respect.
“There were clearly blocks in my career that I had to overcome just with talent and persistence,” Shalala said. “But once you’re the boss, they don’t mess with you, even though you still walk into rooms where you’re the only woman.”
Aside from career advice, Shalala said everyone should find time to volunteer in their communities, regardless of whether they have a career in politics. Volunteering in local communities is part of being a good citizen, she said.
Shalala emphasized the importance of keeping in touch with people, regardless of their career path. Networking is as simple as forming meaningful connections, then keeping in touch, which she said is especially easy today with social media.
“People ask me how you get to be a cabinet officer,” Shalala said. “Look around the room, figure out which one of your friends is going to run for president and keep in touch for 30 years.”
Published on March 3, 2021 at 11:13 pm