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Last month, heads of state and government of over 30 African countries gathered in Washington, DC for a U.S.-Africa leaders summit, hosted by President Obama and joined by former U.S. presidents and nonprofit and industry leaders. One of the events during the leaders’ summit was a first spouses’ forum, “Investing in Our Future,” co-hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Laura Bush. Although coverage of this forum included the usual commentary on first ladies’ fashion and hairstyles, much attention was given to the engaging joint interview by veteran journalist Cokie Roberts with Laura Bush and Michelle Obama. The spouses’ event was more than a conversation and photo opportunity: it generated millions of dollars in investments in health and education programs for Africa.
Over the last five years there has been growing recognition of the influence of the spouses of world leaders. This gathering of African first spouses evolved out of the 2009 African First Ladies Health Summit in Los Angeles, CA and the subsequent RAND Corporation-sponsored African First Ladies Initiative. Building upon the RAND model, The George W. Bush institute launched its First Ladies Initiative in 2013. All of these initiatives share a common purpose: finding ways to capitalize on one of the most valuable resources available to the spouses of world leaders: their unique power to convene individuals and institutions on behalf of causes that benefit their countries.
At last month’s summit, this power translated into over $200 million dollars in investments for programs that specifically target women and children,
including AIDS treatment; resources for women entrepreneurs; increased access to the internet; high school and college education assistance; training for farmers in Kenya, Rwanda, and Zambia; and nearly $3 million to support the expansion into Namibia and Ethiopia of Pink Ribbon-Red Ribbon, an initiative developed in 2011 by the George W. Bush Institute that uses the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) platform and extends it to support breast and cervical cancer prevention, detection, and treatment.
“The stars aligned”
According to AU Executive-in-Residence Anita McBride, who co-founded the RAND African First Ladies Initiative and is former chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush, “the stars aligned” this year to yield especially generous financial commitments from public, private, nonprofit, and nongovernmental organizations. Two of the biggest stars, of course, were Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Bush. They came together last summer as well in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, when the Bush Institute launched its First Ladies Initiative at the 2013 African First Ladies Summit. A highlight of the summit was a joint interview with Cokie Roberts between Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Bush. It was one of the most highly anticipated features of this year’s event as well. The relationship forged by the two women and their staffs helped make it possible for the already-planned White House African leaders’ summit to be combined with a gathering for the spouses.
Ultimately the results of past investments in Africa are what drive present and future financial commitments from both domestic and international sources. According to McBride, the “undeniable success” of PEPFAR, begun in 2003 by President George W. Bush and continued by President Obama, has paved the way for additional programs in health, education and economic development. Over the past eleven years, the work PEPFAR has accomplished in Africa has led to a more informed populace and a robust infrastructure providing greater access to lifesaving services, both of which are essential for carrying out aid and development programs of all kinds. PEPFAR’s success—measured in millions of lives saved—gives potential investors confidence that money directed to Africa will yield continued benefits to Africans and the partners in their prosperity.
Finally, it is the ingenuity and commitment of the first ladies themselves that makes the ongoing success of the initiative possible. For example, Namibia’s first lady, Penehupifo Pohamba, is a trained nurse midwife who participated in the inaugural First Ladies Health Summit in 2009. She credits the African First Ladies Initiative with helping her to convince her country’s government to establish an official First Lady’s Office and thus provide the resources to administer the programs she champions, including maternal and children’s health and HIV/AIDS prevention services.
by Lisa Moscatiello
NEXT: Part II – A history of the African First Ladies Initiative
“Adding Women to the Leadership Equation in Afghanistan”: A Panel Discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, DC
Can leadership be taught? Are leadership tools developed in the West useful to Afghan women? Are the gains Afghan women have made in recent years sustainable?
At a discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) on Tuesday, May 20, panelists addressed these questions and more in a program called “Adding Women to the Leadership Equation in Afghanistan: Lessons Learned from the U.S. – Afghan Women’s Council’s Rising Afghan Women Leadership Initiative.”
The panelists included members of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council (USAWC)— Anita McBride, Executive-in-Residence at the American University School of Public Affairs; Phyllis Magrab, director of the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development (GUCCHD) and vice chair of the USAWC; Lauren Lovelace, Executive Director of the USAWC—and Scott Smith, Director of Afghanistan and Central Asia, USIP. The conversation was moderated by Ambassador Steven Steiner, senior advisor at the USIP Center for Gender and Peacebuilding.
The Rising Afghan Women’s Leadership Initiative (RAWLI) is a program designed to help young women from various sectors of Afghan society cultivate leadership skills. This spring, 22 Afghan women, including members of parliament, entrepreneurs and other leaders, together with six Georgetown University students, attended the intensive session from March 9 -12 at Georgetown’s Doha, Qatar campus.
Learning from One Another
Magrab explained that RAWLI is based on a successful professional and personal development program for leaders that she helped to create and which members of USAWC wanted to offer to Afghan women in order to help them meet the significant challenges they face in their communities. Although there was no guarantee, going in, that a program developed in the U.S. would translate across cultures, the comments and evaluations participants submitted after the training were overwhelmingly positive.
At the same time, however, during the training some cultural contrasts emerged. McBride described how the Afghan women conceived of leadership somewhat differently from the way their American counterparts did. Many of the Afghan women initially expressed a belief that leadership is an inborn trait that some people have and others do not. The program introduced them to the idea that leadership traits can be nurtured and that people can be leaders in different ways.
Learning alongside Afghan women proved inspiring and eye opening for the American students who participated as well, Magrab said. For example, when American women talk about having a “safe space” to discuss workplace issues openly, it usually has to do with the opportunity to express dissent or vulnerability without fear of harsh criticism or ostracism, but for Afghans, it can literally mean having a place to go where one’s life is not in danger.
Hope for the Future
With the uncertainty surrounding the future in Afghanistan, panelists discussed the concern that recent gains women have made might be rolled back. One positive sign for the future is the high turnout for the recent election and the fact that the results have been accepted as valid so far, without the high degree of corruption that was seen in the 2009 election. In light of such progress, McBride expressed optimism that Afghans will be able to pull together and draw upon the country’s “considerable resources” and use them in a way that benefits all Afghans and helps them claim Afghanistan’s status as a “stable partner and major player” in the region and the world.
Anita is often asked what her job entails as Executive in Residence in the School of Public Affairs at American University, especially when she’s not planning conferences for the American University First Ladies Initiative. Read below to find out what a typical day in the life of an American University Executive in Residence entails:
On February 12, the day started off at the office, checking emails and making sure we have our files and power points ready for a full day of presentations and events ahead!
We took the metro downtown to the National Press Club, where Anita spoke at the American Women Writer’s National Museum’s 2nd Anniversary event. The topic was First Ladies and the Press. She joined with Patricia Krider, the Executive Director of the National First Ladies Library in Canton, OH to discuss how first ladies handled the media. The audience asked many questions after the two presentations and we all learned new and interesting facts about first ladies through history. For example, did you know that Nellie Taft was afraid the press would find out she played poker and drank alcohol? She was first lady during prohibition time and held parties with alcohol at the White House! Did you know that Laura Bush made 24 trips to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina? Not many people do! The media affects a first lady’s legacy in part based on the way they cover – or don’t cover – her activities.
After the event at the National Press Club, Anita gave a guest lecture in AU Professor Richard Benedetto’s “Politics of Mass Communication” class. Each year Professor Benedetto invites her to come in and talk to his students about first ladies and the press. Anita talked about examples of domestic and global activities first ladies have engaged in, how they were covered by the media, their approval ratings, their relationships with the press, and how the possibility of a woman president would change the role of the first spouse. The students had great questions and Anita looks forward to speaking to the class next semester.
Immediately following the guest lecture, Anita had a meeting with students interested in joining the US/Afghan Women’s Council Student Fellows program at American University. Anita is the faculty advisor for this student organization which provided students with an opportunity to get involved and raise awareness on campus about US/Afghan relations and issues dealing specifically with women. The students are planning on holding events on campus to help people understand how far Afghan women have come since the fall of the Taliban and how fragile their gains are in this time of the withdrawal of US forces. They will also get involved in research projects with the Council.
Finally, Anita attended the 2014 DC Democratic Primary Mayoral Debate hosted by the Kennedy Political Union at AU. KPU is a dynamic organization with great leadership and since arriving at AU in 2010, Anita has worked with KPU to help secure speakers and collaborate on events. The mayoral debate was interesting and a was great way to showcase the enthusiastic interest of AU students in public policy and our elected leaders at all levels of government. American University is the only university that was chosen to host one of the primary debates.
All in all, it was a busy day! Each day is different, but they are all packed full of fun and interesting activities that we connect to the First Ladies Initiative at AU.
US/Afghan Women’s Council and Georgetown University co-host Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton to discuss advancing Afghan women – Nov. 15, 2013
Former first ladies Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton joined forces with Secretary of State John Kerry in a symposium at Georgetown University on Friday, November 15, to call attention to the vulnerable status of Afghan women and girls as the U.S. begins to draw down its forces and the country prepares for a presidential election next April. The symposium was called “Advancing Afghan Women: Promoting Peace and Progress in Afghanistan.”
“Once our troops leave, the eyes of the United States will move away, and we can’t let that happen, “ Mrs. Bush said. She added that individuals can help the people of Afghanistan by donating to specific organizations within the country, such as the American University of Afghanistan, the Afghan Center for Learning and women’s centers around the country.
Secretary Clinton emphasized the importance of security at this pivotal time. Speaking directly to a group of Afghan women watching the proceedings from a classroom at the American University of Afghanistan (who could be seen in “real time” on a projection screen in the room), she said the U.S. and Afghanistan are currently negotiating a bilateral agreement on security. The one “sticking point” between the two countries concerns immunity from local arrest and prosecution for U.S. troops. She cautioned that if the agreement should fail, Afghanistan risks falling into the same cycle of violence that has taken hold in Iraq as U.S troops have withdrawn.
Both Mrs. Bush and Secretary Clinton called for the youth of Afghanistan—with the online help of young people in the U.S. and around the world—to start a “public relations” campaign on the need for a valid, transparent vote this coming spring with as many people participating as possible.
All the speakers agreed that the success of Afghanistan is crucial to the future of the entire region, and that the full participation of women in the economic, educational and political life of the country is essential to ensuring that success.
The symposium was cosponsored by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security, the George W. Bush Institute, the U.S. Afghan Women’s Council, and the U.S. Alliance in Support of the Afghan People.
On Tuesday, November 12th, Anita McBride, Executive-in-Residence at the School of Public Affairs, was invited to moderate an Honors Tea Talk panel discussion at American University. The panel focused on 3 themes – the importance of education as a path to peace in Afghanistan; raising awareness about the progress made in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban; and the challenges that lay ahead during this period of great transition in the country.
The participants included Dr. Hakim Asher, an AU Visiting Scholar and Former Executive Director of the Government Media and Information Center in the Office of the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and Eileen O’Connor, the Public Diplomacy Deputy Assistant Secretary for South Central Asia, an Advisor the U.S. State Department, and who also served as a CNN Network Correspondent in Afghanistan. Also on the panel was Hassina Sherjan, a former SIS student who was born in Afghanistan, and who later founded Aid Afghanistan for Education, which she described as “dedicated to empowering Afghans and rehabilitating the education system in Afghanistan.” Their main goal”, she said, “is to provide primary and secondary education for marginalized Afghans, who were deprived of education during the years of war or do not have access to formal education.”
While in the Afghan government, Dr. Asher led a staff of more than 140 people, and developed trainings to teach them how to communicate public policy with the new media presence in the country. Dr. Asher said that a new government is the key to a new era for Afghanistan. He said “the Afghan people understand the need for political transformation”, and, are “invested in their future.” He emphasized that young Afghans without education can easily join the Taliban, and that Afghanistan still lacks skilled professionals and administrative systems essential for a stronger nation. “Education is especially critical in the hard to reach rural villages,” he said, as they that lack resources to teach job skills.
O’Connor talked about how educational programs support the U.S. foreign policy goal of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists again. There are 8 million children in school today, while before the fall of the Taliban there were only 900,000 children in school, almost exclusively boys. Today, 40% of children in schools in Afghanistan are girls. She also said that the United States is working to educate the population as a whole on how to participate in government – a freedom that they did not have before the fall of the Taliban. Today, twenty-five percent of the parliament members in Afghanistan are women. In 2001, there was only one television station and one radio station in Afghanistan, and now there are 75 television stations and 150 radio stations. This increase in media, along with freedom of speech and freedom of press, has drastically changed the lives of the Afghan people. Eileen said that cell phones in the country went from 10,000 in 2001 to 20 million today, and that cell phones are a vehicle for delivering objective information to the people of Afghanistan. “The U.S. is also working with the Ministry of Education in Afghanistan,” she said, “to increase the number of community colleges, providing technical skills to a population where 60% are under 26 years old, and in need of education and employment.”
Sherjan, whose family escaped Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion in 1979, has witnessed great change in her native country. While pleased that there are many more students in schools these days, sees the need for reform for the education system in Afghanistan. She emphasized that you cannot have a democracy without an educated population. Her organization, Aid Afghanistan for Education, has produced 1009 high school graduates, 10% of which have been admitted to universities, and 5% of which are employed. She said that many women are urged by their often-illiterate husbands to go to school. By the mothers going to school, one of the parents is able to help the children with homework, and it vastly improves family home life. She stressed that Americans and other nations should not throw away the investments that they have made so far, because they have done so much to help with progress for the Afghan people.
O’Connor agreed that education reform is necessary, and that teachers are currently being trained how to teach critical thinking rather than just theory and memorization. These critical thinking skills will help children and adults become freethinkers in a democratic society, especially if approached with extremist rhetoric.
Anita stressed that the conclusion that the connection between education and peace is fundamental to progress for the Afghan people and that we can build upon the foundation that has been laid in the years to come. She commented that we have seen how a country can be destroyed overnight, but it takes years, if not decades to rebuild. She said “the infrastructure of Afghanistan was decimated and impacted by 30 years of war, it will take much longer to rebuild, and the world must be patient as the nation regains its footing.”
The event was an incredible success! The panel members each had such highly informed viewpoints on the state of education, peace and security in Afghanistan. The Tea Talk paved the way for further discussion on these topics, and came on the eve of a high level event at Georgetown University on November 15th, with Secretary of State John Kerry, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former First Lady Laura Bush, and a number of organizations focused on supporting the Afghan people during this time of transition.
Women’s Congressional Staff Association Conversation with Former Chiefs of Staff to the First Lady – Sept. 16, 2013
On Monday, September 16th, 2013, Anita McBride, former Chief of Staff to First Lady Laura Bush, and Jackie Norris, former Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, took part in a moderated panel hosted by the Women’s Congressional Staff Association (WCSA). WCSA is an official U.S. House of Representatives-recognized, bipartisan congressional staff organization dedicated to promoting career development opportunities for female congressional staffers. WCSA’s Congressional sponsors are Representative Lois Capps (D-CA), Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Tessie Abraham, (Legislative Counsel to Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA), President of the Women’s Congressional Staff Association, moderated the panel, which took place at the U.S. Capitol Visitors’ Center.
Tessie asked Anita and Jackie what the day-to-day tasks were like as a chief of staff to a first lady. Anita explained that a day was never typical, other than knowing that you started your day at 6:45am and usually ended at 10pm. The most important thing, Anita said, was knowing how to prioritize the tasks at hand and “pivot from important to urgent”. There were always priorities in a day that were very different in nature. Anita described how she would find herself switching between getting involved in planning a state dinner for Queen Elizabeth to planning a trip to Afghanistan. When an unexpected disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina occurred, Anita and the East Wing staff would have to be flexible and spend the majority of their time helping the first lady organize visits to support relief efforts throughout the Gulf Coast – making more than 20 trips to the region.
Jackie agreed that each day was different, and that she would wake up every day worrying about herself or the first lady making a mistake in the spotlight of the media.
Tessie asked Anita and Jackie what separates good employees from exceptional employees. Anita said that confidentiality and loyalty to the principals or organization that the employee is working for are essential. One thing that Anita felt was most important working in the White House was that the employee understood that they had “temporary custodianship” of the position that they held. The employee in any organization should think of the big picture, and have a willingness to do whatever it takes with a positive attitude. Jackie agreed, and added that honor and follow-through are vital to being an exceptional employee. She said that it can sometimes feel like you are “drinking out of a fire hose,” and that work can be overwhelming. Following through, responding to all of those emails, or completing all of the things on a to-do list can be difficult, but is also rewarding for yourself and those that you interact with – plus it is an important reflection of the person you are working for.
Anita and Jackie were asked for advice for women in the early stages of their career. Jackie said to “work your heart out” and be a sponge if possible – “but at the same time, make sure that you have work-life balance”. She said that setting boundaries shows your employer that you have a sense of discipline and thoughtfulness. Jackie feels that giving oneself time to reflect is essential for a sound mind. Anita said that your first job isn’t your last, and that you are building your skills and your resume for your future career. Always networking and keeping your eyes open are lifelong skills to have. It can take time to achieve a proper work-life balance, but doing your best at your job and earning a good reputation for caring about your work are crucial characteristics in the workplace.
The floor was then opened up to questions. Megan, an MPA student in DC, asked Jackie and Anita which things that they wished that they did better while starting out in their careers. Anita advised that you should be prepared, but recognize you can’t anticipate everything. If you don’t have the answer to something, be resourceful enough to find out the answer and seek guidance from the correct people. Jackie and Anita agreed that the people that always say “yes” don’t always get everything done, and that honesty is the best policy.
Overall, it was an empowering evening for the women congressional staff members that attended. In addition to being glad to see each other again after quite some time, Anita and Jackie loved having the opportunity to meet young women who are at the beginning of their DC careers and sharing the example of bipartisanship. One of the most important lessons of the evening was hearing how these two women – representing different parties and political philosophies worked so closely with each other during the presidential transition of 2009 to ensure the smoothest possible start for the new Administration.
-Alexandra Thornton, Graduate Student Assistant
The Library of Congress National Book Festival is one of the legacies of First Lady Laura Bush. A former librarian and public school teacher, Mrs. Bush made reading initiatives for children a top priority of the Bush administration and held literary symposia and author-related events throughout her time in office. The National Book Festival is perhaps the best known of her many initiatives to promote books and reading.
Mrs. Bush launched her first book festival in 1996 as first lady of Texas. The Texas Book Festival was so successful that when her husband, George W. Bush, became president, she decided to use her platform as U.S. first lady to introduce the book festival tradition to the entire nation. With the Library of Congress as partner, the first National Book Festival took place on September 8, 2001. The Library estimated that between 25,000 and 30,000 people attended it.
The Library of Congress National Book Festival is a free event that takes place on the National Mall each year on a weekend in early autumn. This year’s festival was held on September 21st and 22nd. Participants had the opportunity to listen to in-depth interviews with authors like Linda Ronstadt, Lynda Barry, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Khaled Hosseini and others. A tent was on premises where festival-goers could buy books to have them signed.
-Lisa Moscatiello, Research Assistant
Anita B. McBride is Executive-in-Residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, DC. Prior to AU, Anita served as chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush from 2005 – 2009. In addition to her work at American University, Anita is a senior advisor to the George W. Bush Institute and is on the board of several organizations including the White House Historical Association, the US Afghan Women’s Council, and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship.
On Monday, August 19th, Anita was invited to speak to the Young Women’s Leadership Program, a summer initiative developed by Delegate Barbara Comstock, who represents Virginia’s 34th district. The program is designed for junior high and high school girls in the Northern Virginia area. There are about 60 girls in this nonpartisan program. These girls have the opportunity to convene in a casual setting and meet women leaders and discuss career fields such as government, medicine, and technology. The girls and Anita sat in a large circle to allow for more meaningful and intimate conversation. Delegate Comstock said that these events are designed to be similar to the “Lean In” TED talk by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. The afternoon began with Delegate Comstock stating that “women in the world crave opportunities like this, and you can never start too young to prepare for your future.”
Anita started by talking about how she is the child of immigrants and the first in her family to graduate from college. Her path in politics was not planned. During her time at the University of Connecticut, Anita was enrolled in premed and wanted to pursue a career in geriatrics to honor the grandparents that raised her. However, a study abroad program to Florence, Italy caused a change and pivot of interests. During that year abroad in 1979, American hostages were taken in Iran, and Anita experienced how people were celebrating this act rather than protesting for the Americans’ release. Growing up with a strong sense of patriotism and a belief in American promise and opportunity, she was unsettled by this reaction. Upon returning to the United States, Anita changed her major to international studies and decided to get involved in the 1980 presidential campaign for Ronald Reagan. Her experience as a phone bank volunteer sparked a lifelong interest in political participation. She later on moved to DC when President Reagan took office, finished her degree at American University, and was granted a valuable internship at the Department of Commerce.
Later in 1984, after volunteering again for Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign, Anita was offered a job in the White House. She explained that it was one of the lowest positions on the totem pole, but it was a foot in the door, and she saw it as the opportunity of a lifetime. Anita read the mail that came in for President Reagan and identified letters that he would read and respond to during his weekends at Camp David. She explained how this was an important link between the American people and their president, most of whom would never meet him. This job led her to other opportunities in the White House over the next eight years gaining valuable skills in management and administration of the White House complex.
After a hiatus in the private sector, she returned to the White House in 2001 to assist in the transition of the new administration of President George W. Bush. She held several positions in the Administration at the White House and at the U.S. State Department. In 2004, First Lady Laura Bush selected Anita to be her chief of staff. Mrs. Bush was looking for someone who understood how the White House was run but could also help her develop a broader global platform. At the time she was selected, Anita had been working part-time at the state department, and was the mother of two young children, four and seven years old. This was her opportunity to “lean in” and go full throttle into this new, exciting position. Over the next four years, Anita helped develop and execute Mrs. Bush’s travel to nearly 70 countries, from Afghanistan to Zambia, the Middle East, the refugee camps on Thai-Burma border, and all fifty states.
Anita’s service in the White House over two decades and three administrations, especially her work with First Lady Laura Bush, helped form her future career interests and choices. At American University, she directs programming and national conferences on the legacies of America’s first ladies and their historical influence on politics, policy and global diplomacy. Additionally, she has cofounded the African First Ladies Initiative, which seeks to strengthen the offices of the first ladies of Africa. Although her path was not traditional, Anita stressed that everyone finds his or her way differently, and that the combination of hard work, pursuing a good education, and taking advantage of opportunities that come your way is a formula for success and professional fulfillment.
Anita finished her talk by offering some thoughts and advice from her own experiences. She said that every step you take leads to something else, and the pivots that we take along the way are essential for personal growth. Anita stressed that openness to change and indirect paths is so important. Before she opened it up to questions and discussion, Anita said most of all, “Thank your parents, your families, and your teachers.” She also stated that “building networks are important for the rest of your lives, always your best and go above and beyond of what may be required from you, and people will want you on their team.”
Caitlyn, a student from Northern Virginia, asked Anita how she handled setbacks. Anita said that when you hit a plateau, you realize that something may not be so fun, but you have to make it a learning experience. Gianna, also a student, asked what Anita’s most rewarding White House experience was. Anita said that it was traveling the United States with Mrs. Bush, and “getting to see our incredible country, how people support their communities, and being reminded how Americans are the most compassionate people on Earth, always the first to respond to needs at home and abroad.” It isn’t widely known, but Mrs. Bush traveled to the Gulf Coast 25 times after Hurricane Katrina to work alongside people rebuilding their communities.
Overall, it was an inspiring afternoon spent with bright middle school and high school girls, Delegate Barbara Comstock, and Anita McBride. The fact that this program exists is wonderful, and I hope that similar programs start popping up around the United States to inspire, educate, and empower young girls.
- Alexandra Thornton, Graduate Student Assistant