How did you come across PLEN?
I was first told of this fantastic program my sophomore year, when a friend from my freshmen floor mentioned it to me over lunch. She had attended the Women in STEM Policy seminar as a sophomore and absolutely loved it. It was a huge factor in her decision to start looking into working in environmental policy. My senior year, PLEN was mentioned to me again by one of my sorority sisters who also attended the STEM policy seminar. While she was there, she sent me pictures of her time in DC and gave me a really good idea of what to expect. After knowing more about the program I decided that it would be a great experience and signed up to go!
What was PLEN really like?
PLEN was amazing! I would encourage anyone thinking about going to attend. I go to a coed school so having the opportunity to talk about issues solely from a woman's perspective and with other women was really nice. The seminar advanced my understanding of our government and the importance of understanding the political process. One of my favorite parts of the experience was definitely the workshop on salary negotiation. Before PLEN, I was unaware that salary negotiation was even possible and now I feel like I could negotiate my own salary with ease. Surprisingly, I had the most fun at the mock Congressional hearing. I had never once thought of myself working in politics, but I loved the experience of putting together an argument and serving as an expert witness. However, I think the most amazing part of the PLEN experience was finding support and encouragement from the other attendees and celebrating the power of women and all that we can accomplish.
What piece of advice would you offer to someone thinking of going to PLEN?
My best piece of advice would be to take the leap and attend a seminar. Even if you think that maybe it’s not targeted to what you want to do in the future, there is something for everyone at PLEN and having an understanding and awareness of our government and how it operates is a great skill that can be applied in any field. The staff do a great job of bringing in panelists and speakers from all different backgrounds and areas of STEM. As someone interested in public health, I was able to visit the National Institute of Health and the American Public Health Association, which is something I would have never been able to do without PLEN.
How has attending PLEN changed your thoughts about policy and your role in it?
PLEN has taught me that policy is far more complicated than I ever realized. While in DC we spoke with panelists on every level of policy development and government, from lobbyists and Congress women to individual organizations that supported various causes. All of the behind the scenes work I saw was eye opening and it really made me think of how important lobbying and political action is. The best example of this was during the mock Congressional hearing. My team and I were assigned the part of an expert witness for a side we didn’t agree with. However, we managed to work together to form a strong argument and ended up doing very well. Part of our success though was in making connections with the people who were asking questions as well as with other witness who were on our side. Not only did we have to coordinate our own group response, we also had to work with everyone else on our side. Our mock hearing contained a fraction of the number of people in the real Congress, which taught me that the full scale, true version of this experience is extremely complex and fast paced.
As I mentioned, this was one of my favorite activities of the week. I had never thought I would do anything in developing policy but now I see that my understanding of policy and government through PLEN could give me a huge advantage in the public health field. Upon returning to school, I also learned that public health has traditionally had its roots in social reform as its primary approach to improve overall population health. As such, I am very grateful I was able to attend PLEN and have had this experience because it will likely come in handy in the future.
What are some challenges you had while at PLEN, and how did you overcome them?
At the beginning of my PLEN journey I knew very little about how policy was made and had never been to Washington, DC. I grew up in a very rural town and attended a small rural school so the thought of going to such a large city was intimidating. Similarly, I had never ridden a subway or used apps like Uber and Lyft. Thankfully, I had a supportive group of women from my school who went with me and we were able to tackle the subway and taxi systems together.
I also thought policy development was going to be very hard to learn. As a biology major, I hadn’t taken a government class since high school and was very rusty on the whole process. Thankfully, other women at the seminar were willing to review some of the processes with me and in no time I was up to speed.
Would you attend another PLEN seminar?
Of course! Everything about my experience at PLEN was excellent and I would love to also attend the Public Policy seminar! I would also like to say thank you to all the organizers of PLEN, the school for helping to pay for it and the other people who participated with me. I hope that this post will serve as a good motivator for other women looking to attend a PLEN seminar.
Haley O'Brien attended the 2018 Women in STEM Policy seminar with a scholarship sponsored by the Hopper Dean Foundation. She will graduate from St. Lawrence University in spring 2018.