From Whitman to the White House: How college shaped my journey

By Meagan Reed ’06

I am about to graduate for what is   almost certainly the last time. Hallelujah! Although, to tell the truth, I’m already getting a bit nostalgic. I earned my B.A. from Whitman nine years ago; my J.D. from Yale Law School six years ago; and now I’ll be obtaining my Master’s in Public Affairs from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. What can I say? I love learning. But, I think I’ve had enough formal education at this point. I’m cutting myself off. Absolutely, positively no Ph.D. – unless someone decides they want to give me an honorary doctorate someday. That seems like a fair exception.Meagan Reed2

Anyway, this seems like one of those good moments in life to ask, “How did I get here?” I did have a basic life plan, I suppose – but as a famous 19th century German strategist pointed out, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” In other words, putting a plan in motion inevitably forces you to adapt it as you go along in response to unforeseen developments. I decided in college that I wanted a J.D./M.P.A. because I knew I wanted a career in government. Then I realized applying for two graduate programs while writing my senior thesis just wasn’t going to happen. Fortunately, somewhere between there and 2015, I just managed to squeak the second graduate degree in under the wire, so I can still say that I’m on track for my “ten-year plan.” (As though there was never any doubt… Isn’t hindsight wonderful!)

Meagan Reed3Let me attempt to recap the journey: I went from Whitman straight to law school, then into the military as a JAG officer (i.e., a military attorney). – Talk about three different cultures and environments! – But instead of wanting to continue as a prosecutor when my military service ended, as I had expected, I found myself drawn to public policy, and served as a legislative assistant in the U.S. Senate. I thoroughly enjoyed learning the ropes, but soon realized that Congress was a very frustrating place to be in 2013, and frankly, the next couple of years looked pretty bleak, too. I’ve never been one to enjoy sitting in gridlock, so I headed off to policy school to add some technical skills to my career toolkit and pivot into a new field – local politics, or perhaps the executive branch. Still, in spite of the fact that my life has changed course several times over the years since college, my path seems to have followed a certain logic, or at least, to reflect a few core principles that have guided me along the way.

Meagan Reed4One, I believe in the power of education and of knowledge. Whitman’s dedication to giving its students a strong liberal arts foundation was one of the things that drew me to it in the first place, and has served me incredibly well ever since. As a politics major, I didn’t think I’d be revisiting calculus after leaving college… but lo and behold, the past two years have been full of economics, statistics and – oh, joy – lots of higher math. My philosophy courses helped me to cement my personal values, and all of the careful reading we did in the core curriculum gave me a leg up in the analysis of legal texts. And I still find meaning in music and the arts – in fact, balancing hours of rigorous logical thinking during law school with tango dancing and playing in a community orchestra helped keep me sane! Today, intramural sports at Princeton is serving a similar function in my life. The flag football is lacking compared to Whitman’s, but then, whose isn’t? On the plus side, I can heartily recommend the aerobic benefits of innertube water polo.

Two, I’m devoted to public service. There was a whole range of inspiring activism at Whitman while I was there, from protesting the Iraq war (though obviously that didn’t stop me from joining the Marines), to taking back the night, to helping migrant farm laborers. I joined causes here and there, and became an ASWC Senator, and wrote for the Pioneer. I served my school and my fellow students the way I hoped to later serve my country.

Three, I value havinMeagan Reed1g a strong community. I picked Whitman, and Yale Law, and the Woodrow Wilson School, because they all feature small programs filled with high achievers. I wanted to know all of my classmates, to have relationships with professors, and to make my own mark within each school. Similarly, I picked the Marines in no small part because they have an esprit de corps that is second to none. And I had the good fortune to work for the junior Senator from Vermont – a small office representing a small state, but – I’d like to think – one with outsized influence.

And four, as mentioned, I don’t like sitting still. Today, I’m at another fork in the road, deciding between returning to Washington State – which has always been a part of the plan, such as it is – and spending a few more years in the “other” Washington (D.C.). I had the privilege of interning in the White House last summer, and it’s hard not to let it go to your head: This is where the magic happens! Or, lately, as I’ve mentioned, where the not-so-magical gridlock happens. Maybe I should get out while I still can, but it’s hard to resist the gravitational pull of so many policy-minded people in a single ten-miles-square town, with their hands on the levers that affect us all.

Either way, I can’t complain. I still have good friends from Whitman – even a couple who found their ways to the East Coast like me – and fond memories of Walla Walla, including the ability to recognize a few decent wines. I ran my first beer mile since college last fall and got second place – not too shabby. I keep in touch with a professor or two, and they kindly pretend to remember me. Now I just need to dig my diploma out of storage, so I can put it on my wall at the great public policy job I’m about to get (right?), and start working on the next ten-year plan!

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