Sarah Kyle remembers studying political science as a Purdue undergraduate and realizing that she wanted to someday work in Washington, D.C., influencing the legislative process just like those she saw on C-SPAN video clips in class.
Kyle achieved that goal by working as a congressional staff member for Rep. Tim Roemer and Sen. Evan Bayh after graduation. Across nearly two decades in Washington, D.C., the 2000 Purdue graduate has also put her public policy experience to use via leadership positions with nonprofits like the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, as well as in her current position, senior advisor for federal government relations for Eli Lilly & Company. Kyle visited campus on Sept. 13 as one of three College of Liberal Arts Emerging Voice Award recipients for 2019. Prior to the awards ceremony, she participated in a question-and-answer session with THiNK Magazine editor David Ching. Here are excerpts from their conversation:
Q: How did your experience in the College of Liberal Arts prepare you for your career?
A: I think liberal arts gives you a grand array of things to study, and I do think that allows you to be more well-rounded. So having those classes and those experiences in the school prepared me to go into various areas, which has helped me throughout my career at different steps.
I do think having a liberal arts degree shows you are trainable, you are able to learn different things. So I think the school itself and all the offerings of classes helped, but also study abroad. I studied at Oxford and I think that kind of gave me a bigger edge, if you will, to having more experience and more ability to see the world in a different way. I think that helped me in my career, going from Capitol Hill to non-profits to now at Eli Lilly.
Q: How did studying abroad open your mind to the world in a way that might not have otherwise occurred?
A: I had not traveled a ton as a child outside of the country, so it was my first opportunity as a young adult to not only just visit there, but live there. I was there for a few months as a student, really on my own. My parents weren’t with me and I was with a bunch of students exploring, and it gave me a chance to study there.
We spent time on the weekend traveling to Ireland, and we went to Paris, and we did all of these sorts of cheap trips because none of us had any money. But it gave us a chance to get a glimpse into the world, and see how people view Americans, and how Americans view Europeans, and how their traditions are different, and how they get a pint and visit on politics. It just allowed us to see another dynamic.
Q: How did your exposure to the C-SPAN archives as a student spark or influence your interest in politics?
A: Professor Robert Browning was my first professor at Purdue in political science, and it was Political Science 101. He was charged with not only carrying out his political science responsibilities as a professor, but he was also charged with managing the C-SPAN archives as his second big job. He was kind of experimenting, I think, at the time by showing us these videos he had filed.
I remember he put one up on the screen and it was a key budget vote that occurred in the ’90s and there was all this hustle and bustle on the House floor around the budget vote. You could see on the screen people that changed their votes, and all of a sudden there was this outcry from one side of the room to the other. I remember thinking that was so exciting.
So more and more that semester, he showed more and more of these videos talking about politics-versus-policy, and it just opened my eyes to how I wanted to be there. I wanted to be part of that. That, honestly, ultimately led me into internships on Capitol Hill and then eventually working in both the House and Senate as a staffer.
Q: What was the biggest lesson you had to learn when you started working on the Hill?
A: Nothing is below you. You make copies, you do all of the things that are involved in an office.
That was sort of the function of the job, but I think ultimately the biggest lesson I learned is that everybody has a voice. When constituents come in, or when people come in and share their issue, you have to really listen to them. It takes a lot of planning and a lot of strategizing to come to you about an issue, so you really have to hear them out. It’s really such a key point in our democracy, that everybody has a viewpoint and the freedom of speech carries out in coming to a congressional office and sharing your point of view. You may not always agree with it on a personal level, but that’s not the job. The job is to say, ‘We are hearing you. We are factoring in your thoughts.’ So in whatever piece of legislation or vote or whatnot, we’re factoring in all of that.
I worked for a moderate Democrat, so he wasn’t part of the fringe of the parties and always had to take into account both sides. So I would say everybody has a voice and that you always have to listen to both sides of an issue in order to make a good decision.
Q: Does that exist anymore?
A: I would say yes. I think that it exists, but I do think you’re unfortunately seeing the fringe of the parties getting the most attention. But I do think there are really thoughtful people on Capitol Hill who have a lot of common sense. I have not lost hope in the process. I think we should continue to feel optimistic about the future.
I was realizing in getting ready for this trip, thinking about 20 years ago as I was a senior at Purdue, we were going through President Bill Clinton and some of those issues of impeachment and those real trying times in our government. And 25 years before that was Watergate, so we do go through these hills and valleys in government, and it’s part of it, but I think we have every reason to be optimistic about what’s ahead.
Q: I know you had some unique undergraduate experiences like attending a Ross Perot campaign rally on campus and hosting Ambassador Carolyn Curiel. What stands out as your most memorable experience as a Purdue student?
A: I think it was every day. There was that experience of a Ross Perot rally. Whether I agreed with his political ideas or not, it was still exciting to be there with the balloons coming down and all the pomp and circumstance at the Armory for that. And I loved that.
Participating with Ambassador Curiel, hosting her at my sorority, or just playing a part as philanthropy lead for my sorority, raising money for JDRF, the type-1 diabetes charity which I later worked for in Washington, D.C., you’d like to say it was one thing, but I think it was the everyday, day in and day out being part of a really great school and a really great program in political science.
You were going through the motions every day, but knowing that it would lead to a bigger something – and that bigger something was being a graduate of the university and going on to some exciting things. I can’t necessarily point to one instance. Those were some of the highlights, but I do think the everyday was always a privilege to be here.
Q: How has Purdue changed since you were a student?
A: I was driving around campus early evening yesterday and thought, ‘Wow, it’s physically so much bigger and the buildings are newer.’ Everything seems newer. But then so much of it is still the same. You still feel a real comfort when you’re on campus, and I really am excited about this 150th anniversary, Giant Leaps. It’s pretty exciting when you think about the Distinguished Alumni and all of the course offerings that are here. People from all over the world come here.
Even the size of the university has changed. I think when I went to school here, it was 30,000-plus. Now, it’s upwards of 44,000. When I think about how much it’s changed, that’s exciting, but so much has stayed the same in some foundational pieces. It’s still a fantastic university that attracts really good people, and at the end of the day, so many people who leave here are successful. So that’s what I would say. It has changed, but so much has stayed the same in a good way.
Q: What advice would you offer to a student in political science now?
A: Get involved. This is such an exciting time. I know every election we say, ‘This is the election of a lifetime,’ but this is going to be the election of our lifetime in 2020. So I would say get in there, get involved, jump on a campaign. There are very few times in your life when you can do that, and you will learn so much. You won’t just learn policy, you’ll learn politics, you’ll learn process, and it’s an exciting time to do that. As a 22-year-old graduate of Purdue, I can think of no better thing than to just get in there and try it out.
But also find a way to serve, whether it’s on a congressional staff, whether it’s on a campaign. Find a way to really understand what you have learned in books, how it plays out for real. And I think the lesson of all lessons is to say nothing is below you. We all start new jobs, we all answer the phone, we all make copies. We all do these things. That doesn’t change. But you are contributing to a bigger thing when you join in these different spheres. I would say just get in there and put what you learned in the books into practice.