When I got an email calling for applications for funding to attend the PLEN Women in Corporate and Nonprofit Leadership Seminar, I wanted to immediately jump on the opportunity. When I began reading about the history of PLEN and the chance to learn about the nonprofit sector, I knew this seminar would be an unforgettable experience. Though the nonprofit industry accounts for over $375B in charitable donations, most students are not taught about philanthropy in an academic context. I was not even introduced to philanthropy and fundraising as a career until my junior year of college. During the summer between my junior and senior year, I accepted an internship working in development at the University of Michigan, and was introduced to the massive, complex world of nonprofits. I was able to engage with course work and textbooks that explained the history of the nonprofit industry, different types of non-governmental organizations, and how nonprofits are structured. When my internship ended, I thought my formal education about the nonprofit world had ended as well. That is why the Women in Corporate and Nonprofit Leadership Seminar was so exciting; I could gain knowledge and insight about the nonprofit world from women who were not just in the sector, but leaders in their organizations.
Before attending PLEN Women in Corporate and Nonprofit Leadership seminar, I did not know what to expect. Though I am a fairly social person, I was nervous to travel by myself for the first time and spend 3 days with people I did not know. I had only been to Washington D.C. once before, and the idea of navigating the city was almost paralyzing. However, what I found when I finally arrived for the conference was a group of young women who were warm and intelligent, and a city that was buzzing with excitement. The three days and two nights I spent at the PLEN Women in Corporate and Nonprofit Leadership seminar were some of the most exhausting, but rewarding, of my undergraduate career. The other participants came from a great group of universities that were historied and vastly different from the University of Michigan. They traveled from the East Coast and the South, large public powerhouses and prestigious women’s colleges. The diversity of the group allowed for different perspectives to shine through, creating dynamic conversations in the workshops all of us attended together.
The workshops were made even better by the incredible leaders that were present every part of the seminar. Though I read the itinerary before arriving in Washington, and familiarized myself with the women scheduled to speak, I was consistently blown away by the content and intentionality of every single workshop PLEN scheduled for us. Whether we were being introduced to trade associations, learning about corporate lobbying for major companies, or improving our networking skills, PLEN packed each day with exciting learning opportunities. On top of workshops with leaders that came to us, PLEN offered us a site visit on our second day. My site visit was at the Pew Charitable Trusts, which funds research and advocacy for an astounding variety of issues such as climate change, prison reform, and education. Walking into the Pew Charitable Trusts’ office felt immensely important, and the other seminar participants could not believe that we had been given access to such a prestigious nonprofit. Without PLEN, visiting Pew Charitable Trusts would have never been possible. This is just one of the many unforgettable moments I experienced at the PLEN Women in Corporate and Nonprofit Leadership seminar.
Whether it was in a workshop, at the networking luncheon, or on site visits, the most important insight I gained from the conference was inviting discourse between people with different ideological viewpoints. As an outspoken advocate for pro-choice ideals on my campus, I do not often constructively interact with people who identify as conservative. When I saw the speaker biographies, I was hesitant when I learned that many worked in Republican administrations. I did not know if I would relate to their stories, their passions, or their professional paths. What I was shocked to learn was that the panels consisting of women across the political spectrum were my favorite. As I listened to women who worked in lobbying that had diametrically opposing political ideologies, I continued to think to myself, “Why aren’t we having more discussions like this?” In a time where it can often feel impossible to find common ground that identify with political parties that are not your own, these panels were a much needed breath of fresh air.
Overall, attending the PLEN Women in Corporate and Nonprofit Leadership seminar was the most formative weekend of my undergraduate journey. I was challenged to network and learn from perspectives I would not necessarily seek out normally. I had amazing exposure to young women who were fabulous leaders and scholars from across the country. I would encourage any young woman interested in policy to attend a PLEN seminar because the experiences, friendships, and lessons learned will guide you long after you leave Washington D.C.
Ashley Wilson is a senior studying Public Policy with a minor in Sociology at the University of Michigan Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. Her passion for policy stems from her upbringing in the City of Detroit, and she now is President of Students for Choice at the University of Michigan advocating for reproductive justice through an intersectional framework. She attended the PLEN Women in Corporate and Nonprofit Leadership seminar with help from the PJ Edington Scholarship, and intends to pursue a career in non-profits. She hopes to work for organizations that provide access to health and education for women and children from urban areas.