Rep. Pramila Jayapal (CAS ’86), a Democrat from Washington, attributed her career and political success to her time as an immigrant and student at Georgetown during a discussion in the Intercultural Center Auditorium on Monday.
Representing Washington’s 7th district — which includes much of downtown Seattle and its suburbs — Jayapal is the first Indian-American woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Georgetown University College Democrats, the Office of D.C. and Federal Relations, the Baker Scholars, the South Asian Society, the Georgetown Women’s Alliance, the LGBTQ Resource Center and the Institute of Politics and Public Service co-sponsored the event.
Jayapal first came to the United States from Chennai, India, to attend Georgetown as an undergraduate student to pursue a major in English literature.
Jayapal reflected on the difficulties of assimilating into American culture, as well as the learning opportunities she found in her classes.
“That English literature major and the liberal arts education that I got here at Georgetown is the basis for everything that I do today,” Jayapal said. “It is the basis for how I think about issues, about rational perspectives that are part of my conversations. It’s about how I communicate, about how I write.”
After graduation, Jayapal worked in a range of fields before entering the public sector in 1991. She briefly worked on Wall Street, received a Master of Business Administration from Northwestern University and worked for a nonprofit based in Thailand and for an advertising firm in western Ohio and eastern Indiana.
Jayapal said she benefitted from working in both the public and private sectors.
“Doing the jobs that you don’t want to do is actually just as important as doing the jobs that you do want to do, because it teaches you something about yourself and what is important to you,” Jayapal said.
After a two-year fellowship in India, Jayapal returned to the United States during the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, during which Muslims, Arabs and South Asians were persecuted and threatened with deportation.
In response, she founded the nonprofit Hate Free Zone — now OneAmerica — and ultimately sued former President George W. Bush’s administration to stop the illegal deportation of 4,000 Somali immigrants and to end Arab and Muslim registration systems as part of her larger goals to reform the U.S. immigration system.
As an elected official, first in the Washington state senate and now as a congresswoman, Jayapal has worked to advance the rights of immigrants through the proposed Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, a program implemented during former President Barack Obama’s administration.
Jayapal said she feels called toward a personal mission to further immigrant rights.
“The fight is not just political; it is personal,” Jayapal said.
Once she entered public office, Jayapal found that she was often one of few women of color, if not the only one, in her sphere.
Jayapal emphasized the importance of diversity in representation and in government.
“The diversity of our experiences and our backgrounds and our voices mean that we do things differently,” Jayapal said. “We chair hearings differently, we craft different legislation, we tell different stories, we elevate different voices, we have connections to different communities. We expand our democracy, because we allow people to see themselves in us.”
Jayapal credits her devotion to public service to the sacrifices her parents made to send her to the United States for college.
“It is that sacrifice that my parents made in allowing me to come here to Georgetown that is really the reason I’ve spent the rest of my life, the last 25 years of my life, fighting for other people to have opportunity,” Jayapal said. “If I learned one thing at Georgetown, it was that we human beings are in service to a greater good.”
GU College Democrats Chair Larry Huang (COL ’19) said the College Democrats invited Jayapal to speak at Georgetown because they thought her story would resonate with students who may have similar backgrounds.
“We want to bring people to campus so that they can share their stories and inspire people,” Huang said. “People can see themselves in her shoes and in her story in a way that they wouldn’t be able to see in many other elected officials.”