By Sarah Achenbach ’88
Whatever your political leaning, 2020 felt like an endless civics lesson.
This isn’t another article about the recent U.S. presidential election, don’t worry. But it is about how political awareness and activism—on both sides of the aisle—are nurtured at Hollins University.
Last year, Hollins, once again, made The Princeton Review’s list of colleges with the “Most Politically Active Students.” Nestled between American University (#5) and Syracuse University (#7) and based on student ratings of their own political awareness, Hollins is the only women’s college on the list.
How does a women’s university focused on the liberal arts and the smallest higher educational institution by far on the annual ranking make the cut along with Columbia University and Reed College?
Simply by being a small, liberal arts women’s college, that’s how. Turns out that Hollins’ educational mission, approach, culture, and size have been the perfect incubator to turn passion and purpose into advocacy and activism. And Hollins has been doing it for generations.
Fostering an Environment of Respect
Courtney Chenette ’09 isn’t one to let a teachable moment go to waste. Last November, Chenette, a civil rights attorney specializing in constitutional cases, worked as a recount observer for the Wisconsin vote recount for the presidential election.
In the evening, from her laptop in a Milwaukee hotel room, she hosted Zoom conferences with her Voting Rights and Election Law class at Hollins. Chenette, assistant professor of political science and gender and women’s studies at Hollins since 2018 and pre-law advisor, led students in analyzing the potential ballot recount challenges that Chenette and her legal colleagues reviewed earlier in the day.
“Students crafted arguments for and against the challenges and applied our class readings,” she explains. “I teach that the best advocates know the rules and anticipate a plurality of arguments, requiring students to develop strong foundational knowledge and see beyond their own perspectives to make their strongest cases.”
When students can anticipate the strongest counterarguments to their beliefs, Chenette says, they become better advocates. “Understanding what the systems are and having the language to explain what is happening around you is not specific to one party,” Chenette adds. “If I were an attorney who refused to think about the other side, I wouldn’t be a very good attorney. Critical thinking and respect for the people behind the issues is important.”
Colleen Berny ’10, a self-described “token Republican” in political science classes at Hollins, felt the same level of respect: “My viewpoints were carefully considered and debated, and other viewpoints helped me figure out where I stood on the issues.”
“In order for things to move, you need to work across the aisle and around the table,” says Berny, who is a staff member on the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and advisor on critical infrastructure security and cybersecurity issues.
She’s been interested in security issues since September 11, 2001, a day that inspired her duty to serve. At Hollins, Berny, who is cochair of the Washington, D.C. Hollins Alumnae/i Association, majored in history with a double minor in English and political science, then earned an M.A. in public and international affairs (major: security and intelligence studies) from the University of Pittsburgh.
Mary Catherine Andrews ’86, senior advisor on communications, management, and international affairs for Vianovo and a former senior advisor to President George W. Bush, experienced the same level of respect among students of different political leanings.
Two pivotal events sparked her political career. “Jake Wheeler inspired my interest in politics,” she says, recalling her first class with the late, legendary political science professor. “He had a box of Ritz crackers and jar of peanut butter on his desk,” she remembers. “He put peanut butter on the crackers, passed them around, and told us to take a cracker and wait. Then he told us to eat our crackers, which was when he explained that the federal government does lots of things, including regulating the amount of rat hair in peanut butter.”
Andrews, a political science major with a concentration in computational sciences, dove into campus politics, and was elected as vice president of the Student Government Association (SGA) her junior year. Each week, she presided over robust Senate meetings filled with different viewpoints, ideas, and agendas from across the campus.
She lauds those meetings and her love of the science behind the politics with inspiring her next step to Capitol Hill and her first job working for Sen. Cass Ballenger (R.-NC). Andrews, who earned an M.P.A. from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, quickly found a passion for international relations. During the Bosnian War, she worked in the Balkans for the International Republican Institute, has observed more than 25 elections in 12 countries, and is the author of eight books on democratic development in Central and East Europe.
Her greatest honor, she says, was serving as President Bush’s director of democracy for the National Security Advisory and as his director of global communications, experiences that reinforced her Hollins’ SGA bipartisan approach. “One of the big lessons I took from the Bush White House is that you have to get along with everyone,” she adds.
Today, Andrews continues to seek that center. Part of her work is advocating for climate change with Republicans and, last November, she was one of the Bush officials who signed the Statement by Former Republican National Security Officials for Biden (NatSecforBiden.com). “[In politics] you have to seek the middle ground.”
Connecting Passions and Disciplines to Effect Change
While naming factors that place Hollins among the nation’s most politically active student bodies, Chenette shares a quality not often described in admission material. “The moxie of Hollins students is unparalleled, but they also deliver on substance,” adds Chenette, who serves as pro bono general counsel for Reconstructing Hope, a nonprofit providing victims of relationship violence with surgery to remove signs of prior violence. Relationship violence was the cause that sparked Chenette’s passion at Hollins. A political science and gender and women’s studies major, Chenette was a campus counselor and chair of the Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
“Hollins taught me that change can come from within systems and from outside of those systems,” Chenette says. “Politics is inherently interdisciplinary, making Hollins leaders and problem solvers uniquely qualified to effectuate change with a liberal arts education.”
Mollie Davis ’22 came to Hollins deeply passionate and vocal about one cause: gun reform. She also has a title—school-shooting survivor—that commands attention when she speaks on campus and nationally as a recognized gun-
On March 20, 2018, Davis was sitting in math class in Great Mills High School in southern Maryland when she heard students screaming in the hallway. One of her classmates had just shot his ex-girlfriend (she later died at the hospital) and wounded a bystander before shooting himself in the hallway. Ironically, five days earlier, Davis had organized a peaceful school walkout with 250 classmates to bring attention to gun reform.
“The shooting made me angry,” Davis says. “It’s so frustrating that this continues to occur in this country. Sharing my personal story makes me feel that the terrible thing my community went through can be used to change things.”
As she wrote in The Nation in February 2019, “March 20 lit a spark in me that will never fade away.” At Hollins, she is honing her advocacy skills and exploring other disciplines to express her voice.
A double major in political science and theatre, Davis is a playwright deeply influenced by the works of Larry Kramer, pioneering AIDS activist and writer. “Theatre is important to the human condition, and there are so many things it impacts,” she says. In addition to her powerful essays about gun reform for national publications and her speeches at rallies and for campus voter registration drives, Davis has started three different versions of a play about a school shooting. “It’s far from finished,” she says, a comment that also speaks to her post-Hollins political career plans.
Politics at Hollins, Chenette adds, flourishes in the many academic intersections and personal opportunities that Hollins students can explore: “It’s not only about making change but seeing political possibilities everywhere, from science and public health to art-making and theatre.”
Maria Jdid ’21 intends to become a neurosurgeon, but her double major—international studies and biochemistry—
speaks to her global perspective. Her family moved from her home country of Syria when she was a toddler and settled in Saudi Arabia, where Hollins caught her eye for its very active Model UN Club—Jdid co-founded her high school’s Model UN Club—and for its single-sex environment. “I wanted to be in a place that kept my voice and strengthened it,” she explains. “I come from a minority sect of Islam, which was condemned in Saudi Arabia,” she adds. “I had to hide my identity. When I first came to the U.S., Hollins was the reason I got comfortable identifying as Arab.”
Her ability to cross disciplines and to “think beyond the lab” proved beneficial during her 2019 Summer Term and J-Term 2020 internship at NYU Langone Health researching acute lymphoid leukemia: “It was eye-opening that the Hollins skill set really helped me excel.”
Pre-COVID-19, she led talks to increase campus awareness of the Arab world and on issues between Palestine and Israel. On April 17, 2019, Syria Independence Day, with the help of her Hollins Model UN friends, she led a fundraiser and presented a poster on the war in Syria.
“It meant a lot to me to see the entire team come together,” Jdid, who was copresident of Hollins Model UN, reflects. “Not everyone in Model UN is a liberal, but everyone is extra-politically driven. Our views are always to help each other confront situations through different ways.” Hollins annually hosts the Model UN Model Arab League Team (this year, virtually), and Jdid has attended the national conference sponsored by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations.
Because of the pandemic, she plans to work in a hospital for a year before applying to medical school. Her plan? Become a doctor and work for a U.S. institution that sends doctors abroad to help underserved populations. “Political activism is individually driven but goes beyond your interests,” says Jdid, who hopes to return to Syria one day. “It’s less focused on goals and more on progress and the journey to enact change.”
The journey for Monica Huegel ’09, a campaign researcher for various candidates including Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid in 2016, began her first semester when she joined the College Democrats. “We were a small, scrappy group that volunteered for Roanoke-area campaigns,” she explains.
She knocked on doors and manned phone banks, activities that weren’t the easiest fit for the self-described introvert. What came naturally was the comparative research she conducted on candidates in early voting states as an intern at EMILY’s List in Washington, D.C., the political action committee to increase the number of pro-choice female candidates, which was founded by Ellen Malcolm ’69.
After earning her M.A. in political science from American University, American Bridge, a political action committee, hired Huegel, which led to jobs doing research for various campaigns. “Research in the political world gets a reputation for mudslinging, but we look at policy and if a candidate’s voting record matches the rhetoric,” Huegel explains. “We vet donors, speakers, and campaign surrogates.”
After Clinton’s loss in 2016, Huegel took some time off before looking for a research position not tied to the mercurial cycle of a political campaign. She now conducts strategic analysis for the research firm IMS, Inc.
Fostering Community through Politics
Laura Smith ’88, chief of staff for Pennsylvania State Representative Todd Stephens, laughs that working in politics was never on her career radar. After graduation, Smith, a sociology major, worked for a computer software company in South Carolina until 2003, when her father’s terminal illness brought her home to Lansdale, Pennsylvania—and what has become a rewarding career in the state legislature and as an elected official.
Smith, who is in her second term as one of five elected board members and vice chair of the Towamencin Township Council, sees her political career as public service and the confluence of her problem-solving prowess and her love for her hometown.
“After my dad died, I needed a job,” Smith explains. A friend was the recorder of deeds for Montgomery County (near Philadelphia) and needed someone to make inroads in the community. “I am the Queen of Connect-the-Dots,” she says. “I made a point of meeting everyone.”
Her networking expertise led to administrative jobs for different Pennsylvania state representatives and a love for helping constituents. “I love it when I can fix an issue for someone,” Smith says. “Once, a father came into our office in tears. He needed a waiver for an independent living placement for his son, who was severely autistic. These waivers are hard to come by, but I realized that the issue was about keeping his family intact. We made the case to the Department of Human Services and got the waiver that changed their lives.”
Her second campaign in 2019 was challenging. “It was interesting running as a Republican,” Smith says. “People told me that they couldn’t vote for me because of Trump, but I explained that at the local level, it’s about managing services and tax dollars for infrastructure, first responders, parks—all the things that make our township such a great place. In my job and on the council, I teach civics. I educate people every day on the difference between local, state, and federal government.”
She’s found her niche as a “senior whisperer,” she says, taking great satisfaction in helping retired constituents solve problems, from tax issues to demystifying technology. Smith, like every alumna interviewed for this article, lauds Hollins for helping her find her voice: “I’m not afraid to stand up and say something. My experience was empowering, and I learned that I could do what I set my mind to.”
Huegel, too, credits Hollins’ size for helping her find and use her voice. “Hollins is a small community, so you need more voices to speak up. You could build coalitions.” At Hollins, Huegel served as president of the College Democrats. “The president and vice president of the College Republicans were also political science majors [with me], and we combined our efforts on voter registration drives.”
“Hollins taught me that change can be transformative and transgressive: it can look like advocacy within existing systems like lawmaking and lawyering, but it can also come from the outside, through demonstrating, innovating alternatives, creating art, developing research, galvanizing community, and educating,” notes Chenette. “Hollins students are among the most politically active because they see the opportunity to make change both in systems and beyond them. They see political possibility everywhere.”
Those possibilities began in high school for Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale ’75 when she and the late Rev. Alvord Beardslee, emeritus professor of religion and former chaplain, volunteered together on Roanoke’s National Council of Christians and Jews and attended an antiracism conference together before she enrolled at Hollins. “He was recruiting me for Hollins, but I realize now that he was recruiting me to ministry,” says Hale, a Roanoke native who has been a Hollins trustee for the past decade.
She immediately became involved in the Religious Life Association at Hollins, chose a music major, and became a vocal voice for change on campus. “I didn’t go to Hollins to be politically active, but the crisis of the moment pushed us there…it was Black power, white power, Kent State, women’s power,” she explains. “I think we were more active then, [though] there’s always been a core group at Hollins who are activists.”
“It was a racist place, which was part of that time,” explains Hale, who founded Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Georgia, serves as senior pastor, and works for numerous social justice issues. “I vowed to change Hollins and thought I was going to eliminate racism by graduation. It wasn’t eliminated, but I kept going. I’m still going.”
“My activism was born of the fact that we find courage at Hollins to do what we need to do. Women have that [spark] in them, but Hollins flames the fire,” Hale adds. “The faculty wouldn’t allow us to say, ‘We can’t do this.’”
Her c.v. is a primer on how to create change across communities. Hale created two nationally recognized pastoral development ministries, Elah Pastoral Ministries and Women in Ministry Conference. Among her numerous national awards is Ebony Magazine’s “Power 100” list of the nation’s most influential Black leaders, and in 2009 President Barack Obama appointed her to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships. For the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Hale served on the Platform Committee and delivered the Invocation at the Convention. For President Biden’s Inauguration, she led one of the prayers during the Inaugural Prayer Service at the National Cathedral.
Hale is an optimistic realist: “Change is slow—external change is one thing, but internal change allows diverse groups to work together.” She proudly cites Hollins’ first president of color, Mary Dana Hinton, Ph.D., a selection for which Hale served on the search committee.
By providing such visible opportunities to work together, from presidential search committees to Zoom conferences about real-life ballot recounts and healthy, respectful (and, yes, sometimes heated), political dialogue, Hollins, Chenette says, shows students how to make change sustainable: “Telling people that they are wrong and you are right is rarely the most convincing argument. Humanizing politics, remembering it’s about people, inspires diverse perspectives.”
“It’s easy to feel you don’t have a voice when you are young, but getting involved in politics [at Hollins] does help you see how that voice gets channeled,” Huegel adds. “You learn that compromise is how things get built, and sometimes there are things that are hard to compromise on, but we have a dynamic system, and we can keep creating change.”
Sarah Achenbach is a freelance writer living in Baltimore.