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Hilda Solis Class of 1981

Hilda Solis Class of 1981

A Love of Labor

When U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis MPA ’81 was looking for internship opportunities after her first semester in USC’s Master of Public Administration (MPA) program, a Trojan alum pulled out his Rolodex and gave her some names to contact. As a result, she landed an internship in the White House Office for Hispanic Affairs under the Carter administration - her first experience in Washington, D.C.

Today, she heads the U.S. Department of Labor, the second-largest enforcement agency in the federal government charged with providing enforcement and protection in the workplace. Before becoming the first Hispanic woman to hold a permanent Cabinet post, Solis was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives - serving from 2001 to 2009 in California’s 32nd Congressional District, which includes East Los Angeles and parts of the San Gabriel Valley.

The Trojan Family remains an important part of her network. In November, Solis returned to campus to accept the Robert P. Biller Award for Exemplary Public Service. The award is named after the late USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development (SPPD) dean and longtime administrator who led the school when Solis graduated.

Before his passing last August, Biller had remarked on Solis’s ascent from community college trustee to congresswoman to Cabinet secretary. “By learning how politics and bureaucracy and public policy issues work, and then immediately translating that to a very constructive career of action, she has benefitted not just [her] constituents, but the rest of us,” he said.

During her time as a graduate student at USC, Solis built close bonds with her classmates from the MPA program - bonds that continue to this day. “Some of my best friends are from my program here. Those friends have been supporting me much of my political career.”

And vice versa. “My classmates have done great, good things, too,” Solis says. “They are making significant contributions in whatever positions they hold. It isn’t just my story. It’s the story of all my MPA classmates. We are all working hard to make the world a better place.”

Working hard, indeed. Immediately upon taking office in February 2009 - at the height of the financial crisis - Solis had to grapple with the grim statistic of Americans losing 800,000 jobs every month. She quickly began investing in training for “green” jobs and health and allied-health training - two sectors of the collapsed economy that were actually growing.

Solis noted there was some fear in local communities about dealing with the federal government. One of her primary concerns was how to engage people who had been critically under-represented in terms of access to job training programs. “Part of the process was building bridges and re-establishing ourselves as a Department of Labor that would protect workers and put workers first,” Solis says. “That’s a change, and it’s still hard.” She undertook a comprehensive strategic plan that reached out to members of Congress and into local communities. “People who do best in public administration are people who come in with an open mind, gather information, adapt to what they learn and make decisions.”

Asked what her message would be to current SPPD students, Solis says: “You’re going to keep learning and changing. You’re going to keep moving forward and adapt and learn new things. And whatever you learn, don’t be selfish. Share it!”

-- Jan Peterson

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