Women in Public Service Program Continues to Grow Five Years Later

Longtime Institute of Politics initiative gives women on campus the resources to effect change.
Members of the Women in Public Service Project pose for a picture.
Our members are future journalists, diplomats, teachers, activists, artists. There are so many ways to have an impact.
Caroline Hutton
WPSP co-chair

Each year, the Women in Public Service Program (WPSP) at the Institute of Politics (IOP) prepares students with the confidence and resources to make a difference in the world. As the IOP and WPSP celebrate their fifth anniversaries, the future of public service has never looked so bright.

“WPSP continues to provide women with the skills and community they need to go out and be successful leaders in the public sphere,” said Caroline Hutton, a fourth-year Public Policy major and WPSP co-chair. “That could mean running for office, but we intentionally define ‘public service’ really broadly. Our members are future journalists, diplomats, teachers, activists, artists. There are so many ways to have an impact.”

According to its mission statement, WPSP aims to inspire and empower undergraduate women to pursue careers in public service while building a strong peer network to support each other along the way.

In 2013, as the IOP opened its doors, undergraduate co-founders Maira Khwaja, AB’16, and Mara Heneghan, AB’16, recognized the need to create space for women in the IOP and provide pathways for more women to pursue careers in public service. They were inspired by the national Women in Public Service Project, an initiative founded by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011.

Khwaja and Heneghan decided to adopt the national organization’s model for undergraduate women at the University of Chicago. Even though the co-founders have graduated, WPSP Co-Chairs Angela Zhao and Caroline Hutton continue to carry the torch.

Group shot of WPSP

Since its creation, WPSP has become a staple on campus and now has around one hundred members. The group participates in cohort bondings, a mentorship program, discussions on current events and even brunches. To show that public service can take many different forms, WPSP has also invited a diverse array of speakers to campus, including elected officials, civic startup founders, journalists and activists. In WPSP's first year, students had the opportunity to meet with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, which served to be impactful to the students in the group interested in foreign service.

The group periodically meets with IOP staff and hosts résumé and cover letter workshops as well as networking events. Skills like networking, public speaking, coalition building, and research are emphasized. Hutton noted one of her favorite events this year, where WPSP hosted college-aged women who have run for political office. Mary McNicholas, a current fourth-year who serves on her local school board was in attendance, as well as Bushra Amiwala, a muslim college sophomore from Skokie, Illinois who is running for Cook County board. Attendees of the event later said that the event inspired them to consider running for public office after graduation.

Every winter, WPSP hosts a quarter-long, application-based Winter Leadership Institute to provide students with skills training, mentoring and support as they explore public service. In its first year of operation, the Winter Institute started out with 10 students and lasted one weekend. Now an eight week program, this quarter’s institute works with 54 students every Friday.

“It’s really impressive that a group of so many people are dedicated to spending time to learn grow together on a Friday afternoon,” Zhao remarked.

This coming quarter, WPSP will launch “WPSP Engage,” a direct service cohort that partners with nonprofits on the South Side to engage students with volunteering opportunities and show firsthand how meaningful public service truly can be. The idea sprouted from a group of three members of WPSP who participated in Chicago Bound, a 7-day pre-orientation program run by the University Community Service Center. Zhao and Hutton agreed that it’s important to let WPSP members guide the group’s programming.

“We’re ecstatic to be able to now use what we’ve learned as a cohort and apply it to meaningful, thoughtful and sustainable involvement with the surrounding community. I can’t think of a more tangible way to put our vision and growth into practice,” Zhao said.

Students laugh and smile at WPSP event.

WPSP’s leaders envision the group expanding even further, offering guidance to alumnae as they explore public service opportunities after graduation. Now that many former WPSP members have graduated, the group is beginning to form alumnae cohorts to continue to foster the sense of community they once felt on campus. Already, the group has had alumnae back on campus to speak about their blooming careers in public service.

A talented and motivated group, there is no doubt that WPSP will continue to not only grow but to inspire women to meaningfully effect change in the public sphere.