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Alumnae Trailblazers Talk Courage, Fairness, and Offer Advice to the Next Generation

By Lauren Mineau
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A diverse, dynamic panel of Albany Law School alumnae shared stories of their career triumphs, challenges, and experiences as young legal professionals during the virtual discussion Alumnae Trailblazers: Forging a Path for Women in Law on September 22.

Attendees heard from Hon. Joanne M. Winslow ’86, Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins ’88, and María Meléndez ’92, all of whom opened up through a series of questions presented by Albany Law School President and Dean Alicia Ouellette ’94 and, later, audience members.

The event—hosted by the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI)—fell during Reunion 2020 and days after the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Attendees paid their respects by participating in a moment of silence for Justice Ginsburg, a role model to many for her work as a pioneering advocate for women’s rights.

“Like our panelists, Justice Ginsburg cleared paths for those who came behind her. We all stand on her shoulders,” Dean Ouellette said. “Justice Ginsburg used a brilliant litigation strategy, exquisite writing, [and] impeccable legal argument to forever change the legal landscape by convincing the courts to acknowledge that the United States Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.”

The panelists were asked a series of questions—on fairness, courage, successes and failures, balance, and more—that focused on law but could be applied to several fields.

Justice Winslow recalled her early days on the bench—currently at the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, and previously at the Supreme Court for the Seventh Judicial District—and noted that even later in one’s career, there’s space to learn and be inspired by others while reflecting on the paths already traveled.

“People that have had to get over hurdles and be better than others in order to achieve what they’ve achieved, they broke barriers for us,” she said. “Those of us that are Albany Law School students today—you will still have barriers to break; there will be times where you will be tested.”

After serving as a partner at Sidley Austin LLP since 2001, Meléndez recently took on the role of Chief Diversity Officer with the firm. In this position, she works to ensure diverse and inclusive recruitment, retention, and advancement opportunities for lawyers at all levels at the firm’s global offices.

“Fundamentally, what drives me is wanting to make sure that everyone has a fair and equal opportunity. You’re going to rise and fall on your merit—everyone understands that—but not everyone has access to those opportunities,” she said.

Ambassador Jenkins always knew she wanted to work in government and she’s done so—in a big way.

From 2009 to 2017 she was an ambassador at the U.S. Department of State and coordinated the agency’s programs and activities to prevent weapons of mass destruction (WMD) terrorism. Now, she serves as a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and president of Global Connections Empowering Global Change LLC, where she collaborates with several academic institutions on issues of global health, infectious disease, and defense innovation. She also started her organization, Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security, and Conflict Transformation (WCAPS).

Being in so many high-stakes roles has turned the pressure up, but given Ambassador Jenkins a chance to conquer the mental barriers that some may see as roadblocks.

“I have to focus on the issue. I don’t have time to focus on being the only woman, the only person of color, the youngest person—I had to do the job,” she said. “I didn’t have time to get into the whole issue of impostor syndrome. A lot of times, that’s just a head game anyway. You get used to dealing with it and you realize, ‘Why am I wasting time thinking of all these reasons why I shouldn’t be here? I need to focus on the job.’”

The three panelists also shared memories of their time in law school and offered advice to their younger selves. Paying it forward to the next generation of trailblazers was a theme throughout—and is a guiding theme of Albany Law School’s Women’s Leadership Initiative.

You can watch the program in its entirety here: