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Dartmouth College
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Alumni Stories: Jennifer Kates '88

Changing the World, One Policy at a Time by Lisa Birzen '03

Kates

The politically conservative air enveloping the Dartmouth College campus during the 1980s provided Jennifer Kates with a backdrop against which to shape and to solidify her viewpoints.

Coming from New York City where "difference was expected and promoted," Kates encountered a far greater challenge adjusting to life in Hanover than she expected and bargained for. The fact that Dartmouth, at the time, was not so "diverse and open, at least on the surface," helped Kates to "become a stronger person."

Kates had to dig deep inside and learn to 'articulate' her views both to herself and others. As a result of this 'character-building' experience, she emerged all the more ready to tackle the issues that truly mattered to her.

Graduating in 1988 with a Government and Women's Studies degree, Kates immediately continued on to the University of Massachusetts to study Political Science. While a Ph.D. candidate, Kates found the academic vantage point too removed from currently relevant issues.

Opting to "make change in a concrete way," Kates left the program with a Masters and set to finding employment within the public policy sphere.

Most of the developments in Kates' life relied on good timing and, as her graduation from Dartmouth coincided with a "key moment in the history of the AIDS epidemic," so her interests became increasingly more focused on HIV issues. Her campus activism and community politics also began shifting their concentration to the then-emerging HIV crisis.

Kates spent the next few years trying to find that "perfect marriage between [her] passion making positive change with the way [she] wanted to do it."

The time of her arrival to Princeton University coincided with a strong push among the administration and students to develop and expand the responsibilities of the school's Office of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Concerns.

Kates advises students to "be careful what you ask for," because, being at the right place at the right time, with her credentials and enthusiasm, she became the Office's first non-student, full time Staff Director.

She enjoyed the "hands-on approach of affecting change in institutional policy" and even deferred enrollment at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs for a year in order to continue working within this capacity.

Following her "training to be a policy maker" at the Woodrow Wilson school, Kates, now armed with two Masters degrees, still had more learning ahead of her; this time, it would take place outside of the classroom.

Her next position as a Consultant in Public Policy Practice at a health care consulting firm provided her with "interesting research experience" but not much satisfaction at the workplace. As a consultant, Kates had to "respond to others' research" and had "no input on how the information would be used."

She moved on from that location to her current employment within the Kaiser Family Foundation, where she has remained for close to six years now. This independently operating foundation resembles a think tank but also interacts with the specific audiences targeted by the company's research, Kates explains.

"The Foundation creates, designs and runs its own policy research programs to provide current relevant policy information to policy makers, the public and the media," Kates explains. The company focuses its research on three main areas: health policy, media and public education, and health and development in South Africa.

As HIV Policy Director, Kates concentrates her work on domestic and global issues relating to HIV. Kates runs a policy shop, analyzes HIV issues, defines the company's agenda, conducts sponsored policy research and manages the company's policy initiatives, in addition to many other duties. Medicaid, which provides coverage to over one half of all HIV and AIDS patients, is an important focus of Kates' work.

Kates strongly asserts that one "can find a career that supports what you're passionate in." Kates' case serves as just one such example.

"We have one life," Kates says, "and we want to feel as fulfilled as we can be." "We may not awake every morning feeling happy," Kates cautions, "but if we never wake up happy, then perhaps we should change our profession."

Kates enjoyed the interaction with her professors who, due to the small size of the Dartmouth community, could become personally as well as academically involved in their students' lives.

Kates fondly recalls that the "involved available adults were very helpful at that time of [her] life," citing Government Professor Emeritus Lynn Mather and Women's and Gender Studies Professor Marianne Hirsch as being "incredibly influential in [her] thinking and knowledge on policy and political science."

Kates urges current students to take classes that perhaps they may not have considered and open themselves up to challenges and new experiences: sometimes taking risks produces pleasantly unanticipated results.

Kates recalls meeting students on campus with whom she initially did not share the same views. Getting to know these classmates better, Kates remembers discovering more of what they had in common.

The Dartmouth environment surrounding Kates' student years, required her to find out what mattered most to her and taught her to express and to defend her beliefs. Faced with the proverbial decision to sink or swim, Kates found the courage to let her ideas keep her afloat. Kates advises others to welcome experiences which will "strengthen your character and make you stronger."

Kates' most critical advice for students is: Do not go to graduate school right after college! In other words, do not do as she did. She emphasizes going to work straight out of school, even if graduates know they want to continue their studies further.

She was better able to "appreciate and be responsive" to her education at the Woodrow Wilson school after her work experiences. She cites interspersing work between academic studies as truly essential to one's success.

Looking back on her time since graduation, Kates reflects on the "natural progression" her career path seemed to take. In reality, however, the combination of persistence, timing and the availability of opportunities resulted in her being where she is today: truly being happy performing public service by "affecting change at the policy level."

Kates' found her dream job and she asserts that with the right introspection and ambition, you can find your niche in the world as well.

Last Updated: 6/21/12