Connecting through UChicago
Gahan Christenson, AB'03, shares highlights of her relationship with the University
Alumni Association: Tell us your UChicago story- how did you end up at the College and what keeps you involved and connected?
Family members who are alumni (I have three uncles who graduated from the law school and one who graduated from the college) loved the intellectual freedom at the school. My mother (a Northwestern law graduate) thought that UChicago would be a good fit for my personality. My interview (and visit to the college plus the application questions, which I miss) confirmed their beliefs. I spent a majority of my interview (which lasted ninety minutes) discussing Hemingway short stories, including "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber".
I really enjoyed my time at UChicago, particularly the freedom to explore all academic areas. One of the traits about the University that I particularly appreciate is that even though I was not an academic super-star the professors and career services always were accessible and supportive in the same way they treated the best students. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t at the top of my class. I want to give back because I believe in the UChicago ideal of continued learning, enjoyed my time at the College and built lasting friendships and learning, and felt (and continue to feel) supported by the University.
AA: As an attorney working on federal and public transportation issue, what is the project you are most proud of or excited about?
I am not so much proud of a specific project, but of my work in supporting the development of a safer working environment in the rail industry. My specific work focuses on enforcing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s data collection regulations within the rail industry. While data collection would seem like a very bland area of the law, cases regularly involve employees and industry trading allegations of misbehavior by the other. I represent the public interest in safety and compliance and I need to work with and interpret the data to help develop safer working environments and in enforcing the rules. I have enjoyed working with the Agency’s inspectors to support their investigations and handling cases that involve multiple parties with diverse interests.
AA: What of your experience at University of Chicago influenced you to pursue a degree in law or equipped you with skills to be successful in the public or local spheres?
First, I was fortunate enough to participate in two Metcalf Fellowships -- one of which placed me in the mayor’s office and the other working as a legal intern in-house at a consulting firm. Those were both great experiences. A considerable amount of my time is spent providing written (and verbal) guidance to inspectors, employees and railroad personnel. I hope that the writing and management skills that I learned through those two fellowships helped prepare me for my current role.
AA: You have a long volunteer history with the University of Chicago Alumni Club of Washington DC, serving as programming chair, vice president, and now president of the club. Could you talk a little bit about why you volunteer your time and the value you see for alumni and current students?
As I mentioned, I feel indebted to give back to UChicago after I received so much. I think that UChicago alumni do not necessarily have the traditional activities that unite alumni communities such as sports events (my fiancé is a University of Florida graduate) or annual pep rallies (well, maybe the Harper Lectures count). The varying personalities and interests that make UChicago so great also make it difficult to create programming that brings together alumni. I have enjoyed coming up with programming (which might not unite every alumni in DC) that brings together pockets of alumni with similar interests and allows alumni to continue to connect and learn.
AA: What have you seen change during your tenure on the board of the Alumni Club?
The alumni in DC want to see more lectures and academic discussions in addition to events that remind them of the UChicago identity (such as the Scavenger Hunt). As alumni have seen the success of the events over the last five years and the solid volunteer leadership that is in place to support them, more and more alumni are stepping forward to organize and host lectures, discussion groups or other “UChicagoesque” events. I love that we are evolving past events geared at only new alumni and are seeing alumni of all schools coming forward to get engaged.
AA: What would you like for future volunteers to know and appreciate, or to carry on?
Depending upon the type of leadership position you take on, the position does require time and dedication. Great volunteers make the difference between a vibrant community and a lackluster one. However, volunteering is worth it. What we do as volunteers and the programs we offer need to continually evolve and remain fresh, to meet the needs of a new generation graduates. I have met many wonderful graduates, reconnected with friends and continued to learn about all new topics. As a volunteer, be prepared to handle and APPRECIATE the wide variety of alumni personalities. Some of the alumni who are the biggest introverts or who really move to the beat to their own drums are the BEST volunteers to have on your Board.
AA: What was your favorite class at the University of Chicago, and why?
My favorite class was Art in the 21st Century taught by Maud Lavin. I wish I had spent a lot more time at the Smart Museum. I finally started to understand the concept of art appreciation and could actually somewhat coherently explain “found art”. Most importantly, my mother is a huge art lover and it created a lasting bond between us and a mutual interest in all things “created” by Jeff Koons.
AA: Do you have any quick networking tips you could share?
I think it is important to follow-up with individuals you meet at UChicago events (and bring lots of business cards). You should not be reluctant to ask for help or to give help. Networking is a two way street.
Do not be afraid to ask to connect after an event or be afraid to follow-up even if it has been a month since you met. I appreciate when a person takes the time to reach out to me and wants to learn more about the club, my work at DOT or DC. I think once you initiate that conversation, it is important be responsive! It is amazing how many individuals reach out only to never be heard from again (and I certainly have been guilty of dropping the ball myself when life gets busy). Alumni generally want to help other alumni so do not be afraid to make the ask.