Young Women’s Leadership Program – Aug. 19, 2013 

Anita McBride and Del. Barbara Comstock (VA) converse with junior high and high school girls in the Young Women’s Leadership Program

Anita McBride and Del. Barbara Comstock (VA) converse with junior high and high school girls in the Young Women’s Leadership Program

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