Headshot of Janet Napolitano

Janet Napolitano

President, University of California

From being raised in New Mexico, to becoming the 20th president of the University of California – the largest public university system in the United States – a semester in London was an extremely important experience for Janet Napolitano (London, Spring 1978). After graduating from Santa Clara University and the University of Virginia School of Law, Janet went on to lead a distinguished career in public service, serving as U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security from 2009-2013, Governor of Arizona from 2003-2009, Attorney General of Arizona from 1998-2003, and U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona from 1993-1997. 

In our interview, Janet explains why studying abroad was a pivotal period in her life and how it gave her valuable skills she continues to draw upon to this day.

IES Abroad: How did you decide to go London and how did study abroad impact your life?

JN: I went to London because I was a Political Science major at Santa Clara University and the program at the London School of Economics aligned best with what I needed to take both for my major and the honors program at Santa Clara, which had other requirements in philosophy. And London, are you kidding me? London for a semester when you are 19 years old! I had not been to London before. I had been a couple times to Mexico and then once to Europe on an international opportunity funded by the Juliette Lowe World Friendship Society with the Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. 

IES Abroad: Can you describe a pivotal event or an ‘ah hah’ moment in London that changed the way you thought about things, impacted your decisions going forward?

JN: It wasn’t so much an ‘ah hah’ moment, it was such a wide experience in so many ways. The academic classes were great, and I remember Phillip Windsor who taught Western European Politics. He chained smoked these unfiltered cigarettes constantly during class. He’d stand and he knew everything! He did my tutorial, and I wrote a piece on Yugoslavia. I was interested in what would happen to Yugoslavia after Tito. He really forced me to think about the impact of a sole political leader that everybody focuses on – what happens when that person goes and preexisting state relationships begin to reassert themselves, and really the relationship of leadership to country or national identity. So that was great. Also, one of the great things about London is as a student you could get tickets really cheaply. So we went to the theater. I love classical music. I went to Covent Garden, across the Thames, heard the symphony, heard Britain’s War Requiem. It was culturally just so broadening for a kid from Albuquerque.

IES Abroad: Some of our programs in London now focus on the diverse city that is London today. Do you remember London being a diverse city at the time you were there?

JN: We lived in a German YMCA at 35 Craven Terrace. I still remember the address. I remember that Lancaster Gate was our Tube stop. We were a few streets over from Queens Way, which already had lots of curry houses and a large Indian population. Overall the food was dreadful, but there was good curry. At the end of the week, we were all running low on money – I was for sure – there was the White Hart Pub down at the end of our street, which became kind of our group’s pub. We were the occupiers. They served this thing called bangers and mash, which was mashed potatoes with two big hotdogs. You could get that and a pint of lager for 80 pence, and that was Sunday dinner. You had to figure out how to do it. You had to figure out what worked.

IES Abroad: Do you feel like that was part of your growing up?

JN: Absolutely. Santa Clara is a very good university, and I learned so much there, but it is a pretty protected environment. And all of the sudden, I’m living in the middle of London, one of the world’s great cities. I have to figure out how to live, how to get around on the Tube, because LSE was not nearby, you weren’t living at LSE. You had to take the Tube. You had to figure out all kinds of things and that’s part of the education process, too, for any student who goes abroad.

IES Abroad: What was particularly challenging for you?

JN: This is going to sound silly, but I’m going to say that the weather was tough. I didn’t have the right clothes. It was gray and rainy all the time. I wasn’t used to that. I grew up in New Mexico and went to college at Santa Clara. What did I know about weather? Now I know, weather is weather, you just deal with it. But then, I thought I was going to die if I didn’t see some sun. I do remember one time, a group of us were walking back from the theater, and it had snowed and we were walking by Hyde Park. And you know how it looks when there is fresh snow? How beautiful it is? We started messing around throwing snowballs, and it was just so much fun. It was beautiful and fun, and you are 19, and you’re in London. It was great! 

IES Abroad: Why and how important is it for students today who want to pursue a career in public service to study abroad?

JN: The world is global. Your life is global. We are a networked world. We are a connected world. I think part of the educational experience, if you can figure it out, is to spend some time abroad and get used to getting out of your comfort zone. When I went on my program, there was no one else from Santa Clara on the program that semester. I was the only one. I don’t think I would be who I am without that experience. It was pretty essential to my growing up. I’m still in touch with some of my friends from that program.

IES Abroad: What international locations would be particularly valuable to students today?

JN: It is hard to pick one over another. You have to look at the program. I picked London because it married well with what I was studying and was interested in. I think being in one of the world’s large cosmopolitan cities, there is a great value to that. I think increasingly, places like Asia are important. I don’t remember many Asian opportunities in the late 70s. It was pretty much focused on Western Europe. It’s a chance to get out of your environment and see the world from a different position. You are looking at different newspapers, eating different food, getting different entertainment. You are not watching American TV. Your time fills differently.

IES Abroad: Can you point to specific skills that you built upon or developed while you were in London?

JN: The ability to travel. I mean, that’s a skill. Learning how to travel well is a skill. You got learn how to manage your stuff and your money, logistics, your diet, etc. Particularly, in my last job and this job, there is a lot of travel. My last job, there was a lot of international travel. I think the ability to meet new people and connect – try to find a connection. That’s been helpful to me. Meeting kids who weren’t from the West Coast. Most of the kids on my program were from the East Coast schools. That was my first time going to school with a lot of East Coasters.

IES Abroad: Do you have any other advice for students planning their college career and for studying abroad?

JN: Take advantage of your college years to challenge yourself and push the envelope. You should begin with getting some idea of what you want to do with your education. But if you look at college just as a trade school preparation, you may be short changing yourself. This is a time in your life when you can really try new things, see new things, and that may influence what you choose to do with your life. You don’t have decide what you’re going to do with your life when you are 18, so push the envelope and then put yourself in a new environment and you’ll gain in terms of career and career planning. I’m often told, “Well, I’m in Engineering, I can’t go abroad.” Part of that is because the curriculum in engineering is pretty tough. But part of it is that they don’t see the relevance. And I say, “Well, are you interested in doing big engineering projects like building big civil engineering structures?” Many employers are international, and if you’ve had a semester or some time abroad that’s a good thing. It will show that you can operate and do what you need to do in a different environment. There is virtually no academic field that we have at the University of California, and we have every academic field, that doesn’t relate or couldn’t benefit from some time abroad.