Spring 2013 (March 30, 2013)
Alumna Spotlight:Kelly Ryan ’01
“I was a total archaeology nut when I was a kid and have wanted to go to Egypt for as long as I can remember, said attorney Kelly Ryan ’01. In 2012, she finally made the trip and, through a connection at Amideast/Education USA, a U.S. Department of State program, spoke to high school-aged girls about higher education in the U.S. “Meeting these girls and talking to them about my experience at Russell Sage was a highlight of my trip,” she said, when she reached out to the College to share her impressions of these young women in a country in transition.
What higher education or career options are available to young women in Egypt?
Generally, students in Egypt take an exam that will track them to university opportunities in the country. Much of higher education in Egypt is public. But there are huge gaps between rich and poor and the culture is evolving quickly and in ways many Egyptians don’t quite understand. Some girls will have access to any opportunity they want. Others will face a struggle.
Some of the young women have put a lot of time into researching college in the U.S. and are ready to seize the opportunity. For others, it’s more of a long shot, but they’re trying to put the wheels in motion.
My understanding going into the presentation was that a lot of the young women were aware of “brand name” U.S. schools like Harvard and Yale, but didn’t grasp the range of opportunities here. I spent time talking about liberal arts education generally, which is not something that really exists in Egypt.
Unsurprisingly, young women from families of means are more likely to attend college in the U.S. or elsewhere abroad.
Would you tell me about one or two of the women you met whose stories or goals especially resonated with you?
Two stand out. One girl said she liked the idea of a women’s college but was concerned about finding the precise major she wanted. She was with a group of girls who were not veiled and who came from wealthier families. I asked what she was interested in majoring in. She responded, without hesitation, “Molecular genomics. Plain old biology isn’t going to cut it.” She was so focused.
Then there was another girl, who, I learned, was facing socio-economic challenges. She came up after the presentation and said she liked the idea of smaller classes because she feels very shy and is afraid to ask questions. I’d told the group that I came to college very shy and credit at Russell Sage for helping me gain confidence. We chatted for a while and she asked for my email address, which I happily gave her. She came back a moment later, notebook in hand, and asked “Would you write something for me to remember you by?” I was touched and wrote a note reminding her never to be afraid to ask a question – I hope it is something that sticks with her; She will certainly stick with me.
There were about 20 girls at the presentation. They reacted very positively to what I had to say about Russell Sage and women’s colleges in general. They like the idea of a smaller learning environment and the fact that women’s colleges are typically very diverse. About halfway through my presentation, one of the girls said, “Ok, ok, you sold me. There’s just something about your energy, it was clearly a great experience for you. I’m in.”
Since my visit, I’ve learned the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt (a Wellesley alumna) has indicated a real desire to focus on women’s colleges as an option for Egyptian girls and specifically identified my talk as a good step toward that goal!
Did the political situation in Egypt impact your trip in any way?
I was in Egypt in mid-October. I actually booked my flight on the morning of September 11. Within hours, the news was full of images of protests at the American Embassy in Cairo and then, of course, the tragedy in Benghazi. In a matter of hours, I went from being thrilled about my trip to wondering if it would be safe to go. Thankfully, it all worked out, but I didn’t know if the trip would happen until the last moment.
Please tell me about your trip beyond the presentations: What else did you see, do and experience?
I was a total archaeology nut when I was a kid and have wanted to go to Egypt for as long as I can remember. We spent one day doing the whirlwind, must-see tourist stuff like the pyramids, and the Great Sphinx.
I also just spent a lot of time with Egyptians. Everyone wanted to talk politics, whether U.S. or Egyptian.
I had one especially interesting dinner, following a talk at American University Cairo, at the Diplomatic Club where at a table of 10 or 12 I had a chance to dine and chat with two former Egyptian ambassadors and the gentleman who ran Al Jazeera’s Washington bureau for 20 years!
Egypt is an especially interesting place to visit: There are plenty of women who are well-educated, successful and independent. Are there women who may not have as much freedom to achieve their potential because they are women? Absolutely.
Depending on the neighborhood, it can be rare to see a woman who is veiled, or it can be rare to see one who is not. More women were covered than I had expected, but even that is challenging to generalize because I saw everything from very conservative, covered women to women in jeans and form-fitting shirts who only had their hair covered. Although I took care to dress modestly, I never covered my hair. I had a scarf with me and I would have covered up, but I just never needed to. Did I attract some attention? Sure, but I never felt unsafe or harassed.
There was a photo I wish I could have taken (They’re sensitive about foreigners snapping pictures outside of tourist spots, so I was careful to respect that.) We were in traffic – a daily struggle in Cairo – and I was watching an older woman sitting near a tree. She was dressed extremely conservatively, head to toe black, heavy garments. All of a sudden, a younger woman, probably about my age, walked past her in tight jeans, heels, great big earrings and no headscarf. What struck me about these women being next to each other for this moment was that it was not surprising to see either of them on the streets of Cairo.
Could you say a few words about how RSC prepared you for your career?
My high school Spanish teacher was a Russell Sage alumna -- she sang the alma mater to me in the hall on an almost daily basis until I agreed to meet an admissions representative!
I spent much of my academic career both at Russell Sage – where I was an International Studies major with a minor in Economics and Spanish -- and in law school focused on modern global history, conflict resolution and post-conflict institution building.
My career has taken some twists and turns, but I love where I ended up. I’m a health care attorney at Hinman Straub in Albany. I do a lot of regulatory work, with a focus on health policy and government relations, especially helping our clients implement the changes required by federal health reform. Before moving to the firm I am at now, I spent a few years working in the New York State Senate. My comfort level with taking risks and deciding to learn new things and explore unexpected opportunities is a testament to my time at Russell Sage.