An Alumna Reflects on Her Work with Senator Kennedy

September 29, 2009

Until his final days, Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy worked passionately and doggedly for the issues he believed in. Harvard Kennedy School graduate Sheila Lalwani MPP 2009witnessed up close the senator’s commitment to public service while serving as an intern in his Boston office this summer.

Her internship was facilitated through the Women and Public Policy Program’sFrom Harvard Square to the Oval Office” program which trains women to ascend through the political ranks. A former journalist, Lalwani fondly recalls her brief time working with Kennedy and his staff during the last summer of his life, and reflects on how the experience shapes her perspectives moving forward.

The recent passing of Sen. Edward Kennedy reinforces my gratitude to the “From Harvard Square to Oval Office” program because, without its support and training, I would have missed the opportunity to work for one of the great public servants of our time. The experience of being one of Senator Kennedy’s last interns and assisting on issues that had a direct impact on policy deepened my belief that a life in service to others is a life well-lived.

I joined Sen. Kennedy’s office in May as I prepared for finals, graduation and moving into a new home. The hiring manager liked my background and academic credentials, and I wanted to start immediately. Overnight, I went from a student to a working professional, who, in the eyes of those in need of help, spoke for the Senator.

I researched the relevant policies and laws concerning immigration, refugees and visas. It helped that I had taken classes on immigration at the Harvard Law School. I joined a vibrant team of other mostly young professionals, who felt as passionate as I did about issues such as health care, immigration and civil rights.

My responsibilities were to serve constituents on their immigration and refugee needs. Sometimes, that meant counseling them on the law, taking questions and making calls to various immigration centers around the country on their behalf. Many times, my job was to listen and dry their tears

Most days were hectic and filled with visits, letters to immigration centers and frantic phone calls. Some of the stories of the people whom I met moved, and, in some cases, disturbed me. There was the doctor from Bangladesh who was struggling to bring his sister and wife to the United States. There was the family with a sick child from Russia who desperately needed medical attention. Then, there was the wife whose husband was twice deported for missing immigration hearings and who could not understand that she and her husband would not be reunited on American soil. There was also the pedophile who wanted citizenship.

I explained the law to everyone and stayed with them until their questions were answered. Perhaps what struck me most was that people would wait to talk to us. I watched as immigrants poured their hearts into handwritten letters addressed to the Senator. Their attorneys had cheated them. They had run out of money. They had nowhere else to go. They came to the 24th floor of the JFK Building to find that help.

My admiration for Sen. Kennedy, especially with regard to his compassion toward immigrants striving to live the American Dream, runs deep. My parents came to this country as immigrants, and their dream was to start a business. When my parents were living in Kansas, my father wrote to his senator asking for advice. He never received a response. Finally, he wrote to Sen. Kennedy. A few weeks later, he received a reply. In the letter, Sen. Kennedy offered my father advice and wished him well. Sen. Kennedy did not have to help a man from Kansas, but that was the kind of public servant he was. I heard that story for the first time as I, my father and the rest of our family sat in Sen. Kennedy’s office.

My work benefited from the skills I sharpened through the Oval Office training program. At the Harvard Kennedy School, where I was deep in studies or running around heading up projects, the Oval Office sessions provided not just a means to consider a life in politics, but a means to achieving that goal. I could not be more grateful to the Women and Public Policy Program for making this program available.

Everyday that I worked for Sen. Kennedy, I reflected on my own life in public service. I matriculated to Harvard Kennedy School in 2007 because I believe in public service. The death of Sen. Kennedy has taken this calling from a purr and turned it into a roar. When Sen. Kennedy passed, I mourned him. I will continue to mourn him, but I am proud to have been associated with him and believe that his torch of public service lives on in me.

Lalwani is currently teaching in Germany as part of the Fulbright program. In the future, she hopes to continue working in policy, politics and democratic governance.

From Harvard Square to the Oval Officeis made possible through the generous support of the Barbara Lee Women in U.S. Politics Training Program and Lecture Series Endowment Fund, Joanne Egerman, and the Beatrice Koretsky Bleicher Memorial Endowment Fund.

Sheila Lalwani

Home page photo of Senator Kennedy copyright JFK Library Foundation/Tom Fitzsimmons

"Everyday that I worked for Sen. Kennedy, I reflected on my own life in public service. I matriculated to Harvard Kennedy School in 2007 because I believe in public service. The death of Sen. Kennedy has taken this calling from a purr and turned it into a roar."

–Sheila Lalwani


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