The fireside chat panel at the UMass Women into Leadership 10th anniversary event
University News

UMass Women into Leadership Celebrates 10th Anniversary, Announces New Home in School of Public Policy

UMass Women into Leadership (UWiL) recently celebrated its 10th anniversary at a two-day event, as program participants, alumni and elected and appointed state officials came to UMass Amherst for a fireside chat, dinner and workshop to inspire careers in policy, politics and public leadership. Founder and Executive Director Michelle Goncalves ’06MPPA also announced that the professional development and leadership training program will become part of the School of Public Policy, while remaining under the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences (SBS), where it has been housed since its inception.


UWiL Founder and Executive Director Michelle Goncalves poses next to a UWiL sign at the UMass Women into Leadership 10th anniversary event
UWiL Founder and Executive Director Michelle Goncalves at the UMass Women into Leadership 10th anniversary event at the Campus Center Auditorium.

To address the gender gap in politics and prepare students for public service careers, UWiL offers comprehensive support for students interested in public leadership, with an active alumni network providing an array of career-building opportunities including field trips, guest speakers, mock interviews and one-on-one mentoring. Any UMass Amherst undergraduate with an interest in public leadership, policy and government may apply to UWiL’s annual cohort.


“I had this vision for an alumni network that would help our students connect to the right people for the right jobs. I had a vision for a cohort of students who would feel supported, who would feel connected to this campus due to a common community-based experience,” said Goncalves, who also serves as deputy chief of staff in the Office of the Chancellor. Over its first decade, UWiL has supported 230 students, she noted.


UWiL boasts “a full alumni list available to help at any point. Bringing that to this campus has been life-changing for a lot of these women,” creating opportunities to begin and boost their careers, said longtime board member Jan Feuerstadt ’96, a partner at New York-based public strategy firm Mercury. “It’s not that they wouldn’t have gotten there, but it made it easier for them. It provided this whole network of women to be able to lean on for mentoring, opening all of those doors.”


UWiL alumna Carla Montilla ’21 remarked on the impact of her internship at Mercury. “It was a great opportunity to learn about so many different sides of policy. I got to work on health care, environmental policy, elections, public relations … it was just such a great opportunity to be able to use so many skills,” Montilla said.


The two-day workshop is the annual capstone of UWiL’s programming, offering students an opportunity to network with state and campus leaders, alumni and mentors during the fireside chat and the Women and Public Service Dinner, followed by an intensive day of skill-building sessions. This year’s workshop, which was held March 29 and 30 at locations including the Campus Center and Old Chapel, was sponsored by the UMass Amherst Office of Equity and Inclusion, the Women of Color Leadership Network, Mercury, Seven Letter, O'Neill and Associates, Baystate Health and many individual donors.


Ann Murphy ’77, a former UWiL board chair and a partner at Seven Letter, a public affairs and public relations firm based in Boston and Washington, D.C., said she wished there was a similar program when she was a student. “Coming back to UMass every year to attend the workshop and the dinner has been such a gratifying experience for me and puts the value of my education way up on a pedestal. It also gives me the opportunity to talk to other people about the value of the UMass education,” Murphy said.


This year’s fireside chat featured a panel of Massachusetts government officials who told personal stories of their career experiences.


“We’re the all-first female team to lead the commonwealth, so we’re hoping to make grounds on having more women involved. We know how important it is to have women around the table, whether it is the corporate table or Congress, to make decisions that impact people’s lives,” said Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll, who was joined in the discussion by Yvonne Hao, secretary of the Executive Office of Economic Development; Melissa Hoffer ’91G, climate chief; Monica Tibbits-Nutt, secretary of transportation; and Kate Walsh, secretary of health and human Services. The panel was moderated by Cassie McGrath ’21, a UWiL alumna and health care reporter for the Boston Business Journal.


Regarding gender equity in politics, “We’re moving in the right direction, but we need programs like UWiL to move us faster,” Goncalves remarked, citing a UN Women report projecting that at the current rate of women entering the highest levels of leadership, gender equity will not be reached for 130 years. 


She also announced that this will be her final year as executive director.  Marking the moment of transition, UMass Amherst Chancellor Javier Reyes took the stage to announce the establishment of the Michelle Goncalves Scholarship. Goncalves was then presented with citations from Gov. Maura Healey and the Massachusetts House and Senate honoring her for 10 years of public service leadership.


UWiL board co-chairs Monserrate Rodríguez Colón ’95 and Heather Ducharme ’16, joined past co-chair Kaylee Johnson ’16G, ’19PhD, to close the evening with additional tributes to Goncalves’ leadership.


“This program means the world to me, and I know that it means the world to so many women in this room,” said Ducharme.