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From an alumna, a window on working in Washington and its outposts
On a rainy afternoon in mid-January, a dozen Boston College students, dressed in their job interview best—grays and blues, and blazers all around—shuffled quietly into an empty conference room on the ninth floor of a glass-walled law firm overlooking the U.S. Capitol. They’d come to spend an hour with Bernadette Meehan ’97, a Foreign Service officer who, until recently, served as special assistant to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In the fall, Meehan was promoted to director of communications and media relations and assistant press secretary for the National Security Staff at the White House.
The students, almost all of whom were women, mostly had trekked into the capital from the surrounding region just for the day. Most were looking for advice on what to do after college, how to pursue a fulfilling career, and, as one young woman put it, “how to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.”
Sarah Gallagher ’13, from Westport, Connecticut, knew she wanted to be a Foreign Service officer, and had come to Meehan’s talk to hear more about the career path. Gallagher was scheduled to take the Foreign Service exam in February.
Caroline Kane ’15, a communication major, came in from suburban Annandale, Virginia, with her dad, who works in D.C. Alexandra Schaeffer ’14, who was heading off to Madrid, Spain, for a semester of study, traveled from Annapolis, Maryland. Neither woman is sure what she wants to do after graduating. “I’m trying to talk to as many people as possible,” Schaeffer said, “and get as much advice as I can.”
Meehan certainly didn’t disappoint on that front. Bouncing into the room in a red dress and beige heels and radiating energy, she spoke directly and personally with the students for nearly an hour and a half, dispensing funny anecdotes and kernels of career advice. Tom Sullivan ’89, a partner at the hosting law firm, Nelson Mullins, welcomed the students, introduced himself and his guest, and then turned the floor over to Meehan.
Meehan began with her basic life story, confiding that as an undergraduate political science major, she hadn’t known what she wanted to do after graduating. In December of her senior year, she signed on as a financial analyst with JP Morgan, and later worked for Lehman Brothers.
Then, in the winter of 2003, an issue of Boston College Magazine changed her life. Meehan even brought a copy of the magazine in question, which featured on the cover R. Nicholas Burns ’78, H’02, U.S. ambassador to NATO at the time. In the accompanying story, Burns (now retired and a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government) talked about what life was like in the Foreign Service. After reading it Meehan knew that was the career for her.
“It was the scariest—the scariest and best—decision I made in my life,” she said. She then shared a few stories about both her day-to-day life as a Foreign Service officer, beginning when she worked in the consulate in Bogotá, Colombia (subsequent postings were to Baghdad and Dubai), and about the job she holds now. In the fall, she was called on to brief President Obama on a topic related to the Middle East and North Africa, her specialty.
“It was a singularly terrifying experience,” she said, laughing. “But it reminded me of my BC days—I was up the night before studying in my sweatpants.”
Meehan opened up the conversation to questions from the small circle of students, who had been rapt and silent throughout her account. Andrea Roman ’14, a political science major, asked Meehan, who is engaged, about how she balances her personal life with her demanding, international career.
“That’s a great question,” Meehan said, and then thought for a moment before answering. “Women officers face unique challenges. If you are a woman officer, you’re looking for a life partner who will adapt his career to yours, which isn’t an easy thing.” She talked about the travel requirements and the prerequisite that all officers serve in a country where, because of security concerns, they cannot be accompanied by a spouse or children. “It’s really difficult. Really, really difficult,” Meehan added.
Later, Meehan addressed another student’s question about how she has incorporated her education at Boston College into her career. Meehan spoke about the significance of the Jesuit education, in which social justice, core values, and “the idea that intellect can coexist with the idea of spirituality” are front and center.
“At the State Department, we sometimes make tough decisions that affect the lives of people and that’s an awesome responsibility,” she said. “I take a lot of what I learned at BC into that decision-making process.”
“At BC, I found out who I wanted to be. I found my moral compass—and that’s something I take with me wherever I go,” she said.
And with that, Sullivan interjected. An hour had already passed and it was time to wrap up, he said. Most of the students stuck around to thank Meehan personally and to ask her additional questions. Meehan, still gracious and bubbly, handed out her business card, and dispensed guidance and encouragement in equal doses. “Sign up for a language class!” she told one young woman. To another, who asked about job interviews, she said, “Don’t be arrogant, but don’t be afraid to sell yourself, either.”
Afterward, Gallagher, the young woman who was scheduled to take the Foreign Service exam, said she’d really enjoyed Meehan’s talk. As the product of “a Catholic and patriotic family,” Gallagher said, she related to Meehan’s commitment to a career in which she “does something that helps others.”
Keith Barnish ’13, who studies political science with an emphasis on comparative politics and isn’t sure what career path he’ll pursue, admitted that he hadn’t known what he would get out of the event. But he was glad he’d come. “It was so great to see someone get excited about their career, to express so much enthusiasm about what they’re doing,” he said. “It was inspiring.”
Haley Edwards is a writer based in Washington, D.C.