By Caroline Cioffi, LiveGirl High School Fellow

From the age of seven, Kate Ash learned to live by the framed quote that her grandfather hung on her wall: “If you have never been frightened, embarrassed, or hurt, then you have never taken a chance; that means that you have missed out on a great deal that is exciting in life.” As a first-generation college student, a woman determined to encourage positive policy change, and now as a mid-career graduate student at the Princeton University Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Kate has continued to embody this motto.

Being a first generation college student, Kate faced initial challenges when she arrived at the University of Vermont (UVM). “I had grown up in a small low-to-moderate-income farm community in Vermont,” Kate said. “When I arrived at UVM, I was faced very early with a shocking awareness of wealth inequality. I interacted for the first time with kids who came from backgrounds and experiences that were very unlike mine. The campus felt far away from home, and my challenge was to see that I could belong in a new place, among new friends, even though our experiences were vastly different.”

During her senior year, Kate served as vice president of the student body and she has continued to stay involved with UVM following her graduation. Two years ago, she was invited to join the board of the UVM Foundation as a Fellow. “Being a fellow has provided me a unique opportunity to engage with University leadership, but more importantly, it also provides University leaders with the opportunity to hear the voices of first-generation students and native Vermonters,” Kate said. “The Foundation supports the University’s strategic plan and enables initiatives that have a profound impact on Vermont families. I am eager to help UVM set a national example of what an affordable education can look like.”

Following her graduation, Kate moved to Louisiana where she took on a job with Teach for America, an organization that places young leaders in low-performing schools. “During that experience, I learned perhaps the most valuable lesson that I had ever learned,” Kate said. “When we are put into a new place with new faces, our values will be challenged. I learned very quickly to adopt humility and appreciation for a culture vastly different than my own.”

While at Teach for America, Kate was faced with a family situation and made the decision to move back to Vermont. “My mother had become terminally ill, so I decided to leave Teach for America to spend irreplaceable time with her and my family” Kate said. “There was a blessing in my unexpected return home, for it created an opportunity for me to reinvent myself professionally and give back to my home state.”

While back in Vermont, Kate was appointed the Deputy Recovery Officer by Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, where she helped oversee disaster recovery efforts after Tropical Storm Irene. Then, for the past five years, she served as an advisor to U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy. “I was extraordinarily lucky to be offered my dream job at the age of 25,” Kate said. “My role was to serve as the Senator’s eyes and ears on all things relating to housing, education, human services and nutrition issues in Vermont. I spent my time traveling throughout communities, working with state leaders and identifying opportunities for the Senator’s office to support Vermont organizations, schools, and families. It was an absolute dream job and I loved every minute of it.”

While working for Senator Leahy, Kate had the opportunity to put her passion for social justice into action. “I found that involving compassion in the policy-making process gave me a great sense of joy and purpose,” Kate said. “The most important task was making sure that our focus remained on the human-centered experience and that we didn’t become bogged down in politics. I learned a valuable lesson from my team -- that being involved in politics is making sure that, regardless of party or power, we are never discounting the voices of the people that we serve.”

After leaving her job with Senator Leahy, and prior to beginning graduate school, Kate decided to spend six months traveling. “This was an incredibly empowering experience,” Kate said. “I have never considered myself adventurous, and if you had asked seven- or eight-year-old me if I would ever travel the world alone, I would have said no way! I truly believe that taking a chance to do something that scares you, which takes you out of your comfort zone, is the most important and rewarding way to grow.”

Today, Kate is at Princeton studying domestic policy with an emphasis on developing strategies to alleviate poverty. “I believe there is a real opportunity for us to more effectively integrate our efforts to address community challenges,” Kate said. “I chose to pursue an MPP because I think we are at a critical juncture where government needs to be more in the business of empowerment. I want to employ my experience working directly with communities to inform policy which empowers leaders to engage more collaboratively with one another and the government.”

Looking back, Kate thinks that the key to her success was finding the things that made her feel strong. “Find what you love about yourself,” Kate said. “Find what makes you feel strong, excited, and empowered. These qualities can take years or a lifetime to find within yourself. But, in the moments when things become overwhelming, being able to come back to what grounds you and what you gives you faith in yourself is one of the most empowering ways to overcome what life decides to present you.”

Having had many mentors throughout her life, Kate also emphasizes the importance of showing up for one another and expressing gratitude. “Above all, I am overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude,” Kate said. As women, we have a responsibility to build each other up. Finding ways to support one another is an incredible gift and, frankly, something that I think we have a responsibility to do more of. I am eager to be engaged much more broadly to ensure that the growth I have realized through mentorship and exposure to new experiences is available to other young people.