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In the spring of 1993 as a senior in high school, I was weighing my options and deciding where I would attend college. One choice was a competitive private university with high tuition; the other was a public university with lower tuition. As I considered the opportunities and spoke with my father, he made a comment asking me if it was worth attending a more expensive private university when I would, “just get married and have kids.”
At the time, I bristled at the notion of limiting my options as an 18-year-old because I was a female, might get married, have kids, and stay at home raising them.
My father was born in the '30s, a time when women didn’t have many professional opportunities. I suspect he didn’t realize how I would interpret his words. He probably viewed it as a practical question. But I was also fairly certain he never gave my two older brothers the same line of questioning about their college and life choices.
To level set, my father was and has always been supportive. For this, I am lucky. I am also fortunate that a comment like that was not a common re-occurrence in my own personal and professional journey. His words did stick with me, but they did not limit my thinking nor impact my decision—I ended up going to the higher-priced private university. And I used his outlook as motivation to prove him and others wrong.
I was also empowered throughout my career by different women. My high school math teacher recognized my talents and encouraged me to go to a rigorous engineering program in college. While I didn’t end up majoring in engineering, her belief in me went a long way toward raising my own expectations of myself. I also had the privilege of working for Margaret Spellings, former cabinet secretary and Domestic Policy Advisor in the White House, for 14 years. She gave me countless opportunities and more responsibility than I ever thought I could handle at a fairly young age. If it wasn’t for her strong mentorship, I’m not sure I’d be in the position I am today: running a policy institute.
These two women in particular pushed me outside my comfort zone and made me realize I was capable of taking on responsibilities I might not have otherwise thought I could handle. Their constant support and cajoling on an everyday basis made rising through the ranks feel more attainable and achievable.
Equally as important as having these female role models, have been the men who have supported me along the way. One of my first male bosses on Capitol Hill gave me an unexpected promotion at a young age, a lot earlier than many of my colleagues in similar positions. While I was an unassuming, diligent staffer in a Senate office, he noticed the work I put into understanding the issues and my ability to quickly assess public policy issues and think through the best ways to address solutions.
And other men I’ve worked with have made sure not to make gender an issue in how they treat women or view their career paths. I’ve always found the best workplaces are those where gender never really enters the conversation—or needs to— because the culture emanates from leaders who are supportive of and provide ample opportunities for women.
That one question from my father, decades ago, reminds me that what seems like a small action or a one-off comment can add up and change the decisions women make. It can inhibit the opportunities they pursue. When you put together a lifetime of diminished expectations for women, it can lead to real setbacks.
On this International Women’s Day, I’m particularly grateful to work at an organization like the George W. Bush Presidential Center that supports strong female leaders on our staff. I’m also proud of our work supporting the empowerment of women around the world, especially in countries where women have not had the same opportunities as I have had in the United States.
Women are essential to the development of open, peaceful, and prosperous societies, and while we shouldn’t need to be reminded of that, this day provides the opportunity to do just that.
Holly Kuzmich serves as Executive Director of the George W. Bush Institute. She oversees the strategy and management of the Institute, an action-oriented policy organization that develops leaders, advances policy, and takes action to solve today’s most pressing challenges. The Institute’s work focuses on education reform, military service, economic growth, human freedom and democracy, global health, and women’s empowerment. Holly also oversees the Presidential Leadership Scholars program, a unique leadership development program in collaboration with the Clinton Foundation, George H.W. Bush Foundation, and Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation. In addition to her role in the Institute, she also serves in a management role as Senior Vice President of the Bush Center.
Holly has over 20 years of public policy experience, serving in senior positions in the government, private, and non-profit sectors. She is a veteran of the White House, the U.S. Department of Education, and Capitol Hill, where she developed her expertise in education policy. She served in President Bush’s Administration for seven years, first on the staff of the White House Domestic Policy Council and then as Deputy Chief of Staff and Assistant Secretary for Legislation and Congressional Affairs at the U.S. Department of Education. Prior to that, she worked for two United States Senators on domestic policy issues. She has also consulted on education and workforce issues with major foundations, companies, non-profits, and policymakers.
Holly is a Pahara-Aspen Institute Fellow and a member of the Texas Lyceum. A native of South Bend, Indiana, she received her Bachelor's degree from Northwestern University.Full Bio