Career Encounters: Donna Shalala

Donna Shalala served as the secretary to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under the Clinton Administration.

I thought it was going to be actually a journalist and my father was active in politics — Republican politics and I liked the politicians that I met and was impressed by them. I like the energy of American politics. I went to the Peace Corps with no intention actually of being active in politics. Again, I still thought I was going to be a journalist, but I think the Peace Corps changed that a little bit that I became interested in social issues and broader policy issues so I came back and went to graduate school. I was interested in political science as a scholar, but my interest is in how the study of politics could affect public policy. I was also interested in the financing of education so, in many ways, my graduate training which had some economics in it mixed political science and economics that turned out to be very important later in my career.

The governor of New York tapped me to use my own skills to affect public policy. He asked me to sit on the board of the municipal assistance corporation. That was a revelation because I got to work with private sector people. They didn’t know very much about state government or public finance. I knew a lot about state government and public finance and state decision-making so I taught them what I knew and they taught me what they knew.

I just urging people not to plan too much, keep their eyes open, look for opportunities. Get to know people. Don’t rush through a job so fast focusing on the boss. Fact is that when you want to move to a top job, your boss is gonna be retired and it’s your peers that you have to get to know. Decide which one of your friends is going to run for president in 30 years and keep in touch with them. Get involved in a political campaign. I learned a lot from political campaigns.

Donna Shalala with former President Jimmy Carter
Donna Shalala with former President Jimmy Carter

Years ago, my first political campaign was — I was on the issue staff for Arthur Goldberg who had been a Supreme Court justice, ambassador to the UN, ran for governor of New York in 1970. I had just finished my Ph.D. He recruited two people — this is the fall of 1970 — as his assistants, me and Stephen Breyer. Stephen Breyer is now a Supreme Court justice. I mean, you just never know where that volunteerism or contact you’ll make, whether it pays off. Political science is a wonderful background for public policymaking, whether you do it as an elected official or his staff to an appointed official. It puts one foot in rigorous scholarship and one foot in the real world where people are making decisions to try to improve the quality of life.

The video clip above was taken from Career Encounters: Political Science which APSA released in 2000. The documentary-style video features people from across the US who studied political science and discuss how their political science backgrounds have been critical to their vocations, their avocations, and their general lives. Career Encounters feature careers that can be launched with undergraduate degrees as well as graduate degrees.