Alumna Spotlight: Michelle Cho
Tell us about the professional path that’s brought you where you are – completely planned, surprisingly organic or somewhere in between?
When I was in high school applying to college, I was dead-set on being a politics major. Government was my favorite AP class, and I couldn’t wait to be 18 to cast my vote. When I got to UVA, I thought I wanted to be a journalist. By the end of my college experience, I found the middle ground that somewhat bridges the two - public policy.
My second year, I took an internship at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). I was in Office of Policy in the Bureau of Policy, Planning, and Learning and looked around at all of the cool people doing all of the awesome, high-impact things I wanted to do when I grew up - solving public health epidemics, bolstering educational programs and schools, combatting gender inequity through inclusive policy design... A common thread that wove this diverse group of people I was lucky enough to call my colleagues for the summer was their academic background; many of them had Master of Public Policy degrees (MPP). I too, should get one of those I thought.
So I did! I graduated as an Accelerated MPP student from Batten in 2016. Now I am in federal consulting, getting to work with client organizations like USAID on strategy and optimization, putting my MPP to use on the private sector partner side.
Looking back, what advice would you give your former, Women’s Center intern-self?
I would tell younger Michelle to soak in her time at the university. It’s a very special blessing to be in a community of intellectuals that are driven and dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. It’s an even more special blessing to be in a place like the Women’s Center where staff and interns give and give and give, constantly using their power for good.
That, and to eat as many oven-fresh Take it Away cookies as possible.
Whose work inspires you to work harder or think differently?
I am a total podcast junkie, so of course, Ira Glass is one of the voices swirling around in my head. This American Life is a must-listen every week. I think Ira has a truly magical way of storytelling and humanizing the most fantastic and most despondent of tales. I admire his ability to weave a narrative, and I’m hoping that the more I listen to the show, the more easily I can pick it up for myself. The show is fundamentally about encouraging listeners to think differently. I think he does a pretty good job at that.
My mom also inspires me in immeasurable ways. She is strong, intelligent, full of light and incredibly gregarious. Her life and all she has built inspires me to want to work harder... More than anyone could ever capture or try to explain. She knows when to push back, isn’t afraid to call me out, and always saves a place for me at home.
How has your view of yourself as a feminist or your view of feminism changed over time?
Like many others (including many other women!), the word “feminism” was a negatively charged one for me growing up. I had very little understanding of what feminism was except that only radical people practiced it.
My older sister went to UVA when I was in middle school, and when she came home one Thanksgiving break to tell us she was going to major in “Studies of Women in Gender”- lovingly referred to as “SWAG” at the time - I scoffed and spitefully told her she would never get a job (as all unemployed eighth-graders are entitled to do). When I got to UVA for myself, she gave me just one admonition; just try a Women’s Studies course. I enrolled in WGS 101 with Professor Amanda Davis and my life was completely changed.
I felt like many of my most confounding life experiences could finally be named. I wasn’t alone in feeling frustrated for being treated differently. Fast forward a few years, and I too, like my older sister, would walk the Lawn with a WGS degree!
Now I cannot unlearn or unsee what I have been taught about gender disparity. Feminism frames my worldview, and informs how I experience just about everything.
Describe your perfect work environment.
My perfect work environment is an open space with big windows, lots of natural light, and a replenishing stock of Nutella. It has a large sectional sofa with an excessive amount of pillows (for brain breaks of course!). On the wall, are my favorite books - among which include the Harry Potter series and plenty of Audre Lorde.
If you could get coffee with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
I would love to have coffee with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg has one hell of a story to tell. She is a true trailblazer and my generation of women has much to be thankful for because of her bravery, courage, and refusal to sit down. I would love to get her thoughts on the trajectory of American political culture, especially from the longitudinal perspective she could offer! I’d also ask her what keeps her motivated at the gym.. Because I still haven’t been able to find what that secret is.
PS - Just to set the record straight, I was an RBG fan before the cult following :)