By Rina Torchinsky
IGNITE at Maryland, a two-year-old organization dedicated to female political empowerment, hosted a non-partisan Women in Politics Panel at Adele’s Meeting Room on April 24.
“People are really taking women candidates more seriously, so I thought this was a really ripe time to have this sort of panel,” said Manisha Sunil, IGNITE president and senior government and politics major.
The event featured panelists who have worked in the White House and at the Maryland state level, including Aruna Muller, a former delegate and 2018 congressional candidate, and Krish Vignarajah, a 2018 gubernatorial candidate and former policy director to Michelle Obama.
Tierra Stewart, the National Fellows Program Director at IGNITE National, and Kayla Gowdy, the communications director for Republicans for the Rule of Law Defending Democracy Together, also had seats at the panel.
Stewart and Gowdy, who are both in their twenties, said that political involvement and public service is not limited to political office.
“When I first started college and declared my major, the question I was always asked was ‘are you going to go to law school or are you going to run for office?’ I said, ‘actually, I don’t want to do either,” Gowdy said.
Vignarajah took the law school route, but only after securing a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology, pursuing a master’s degree in political science and studying at Oxford.
“There are so many paths that can lead to the same destination,” Vignarajah said.
Her political involvement started with “door-knocking” with her mother. Years later, she found an email in her Hotmail account inquiring about an opportunity to be Michelle Obama’s policy director.
“My initial reaction was ‘delete,’” Vignarajah said. “This must be some spam account.”
But after a series of interviews, she was hired.
“I suspect most of you must be thinking about the question I’m always asked: ‘is she as cool as she seems?’ and the answer is ‘yes, she’s actually even cooler,” Vignarajah said.
Vignarajah said she found empowerment in her Soul Cycle class with the former first lady.
“[It’s the] hardest part of my job, let me tell you. She’d always sit right behind me to the right,” Vignarajah said. “She is a machine.”
As she pedaled, the Soul Cycle teacher said a simple phrase that stuck: “You’ve got this. You’re enough.” While it was hard to believe it at first, she said she realized she needed to be her own “biggest cheerleader.”
This sentiment was among some of the advice that Stewart offered, as well. She said that once students make it past their screens and into the world, it’s important to speak with purpose.
“Your words create a manifestation in this world,” Stewart said. “It has the ability to create and also to destroy. So, what are you doing with the power of your mouth, with the words that are rolling off your tongue and into this universe?”
Likewise, Miller said that students should take a drama class to hone in on public speaking, body language and vocal variety.
“Americans at a funeral would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy,” she said. “You have to get over America’s biggest fear.”
Miller, the parent of both a UMD student and graduate, is the first Indian American woman to be elected to the Maryland legislature, formerly representing Sunil’s district.
“It was so exciting because, not only am I a woman, I’m a South-Asian woman and my family’s from India and there’s like none of us in politics,” Sunil said.