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Distinguished Alum Award Winner:  Christine Charbonneau

Submitted by Catherine G Quinn on November 17, 2015 - 1:27pm

Does a degree in political science remain valuable to students long after graduation?  We know that our graduates find success in many paths, but very few choose careers as political scientists.  Is there reason to think that the things students learned in classes on politics in the U.S. and around the world will remain relevant in their daily lives?

In an inspiring speech to the graduate class of 2015, this year’s Distinguished Alumni Award winner, Christine Charbonneau, reported that she had used her political science education “on a daily basis” as head of a large healthcare organization and advocate for women’s health and women’s rights.  “As the CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands, I have plenty of opportunity to use my knowledge about how all three branches of our government work” Charbonneau reported. “I know the difference between the terms fascism and socialism when I hear them bandied about on the news.  I know what happens when an electorate is very involved, and when an electorate only shows up once every four years for the presidential election.”

Charbonneau also confessed, “When I graduated in 1982, I would never have imagined standing here now--nor, I dare say would my professors. I was a solid B student, but I loved what I was learning here.”  After graduating from UW in the early 1980s with a double major in political science and history, Charbonneau quickly established herself as a talented advocate, organizer, and leader.  She first became involved with Planned Parenthood as a volunteer while still at UW, and then quickly rose through the ranks after graduation.  In 1986, Charbonneau moved to Arkansas to create and lead a new affiliate organization. Two years later, she returned to Seattle to become Chief Operations Officer of Planned Parenthood of Seattle/King County.   She is now the CEO of a larger merged organization with over 500 employees that includes 28 health centers in four states (Washington, Idaho, Alaska, and Hawaii) serving about 100,000 clients each year. Charbonneau also helped found Afaxys Pharmaceuticals, an organization that works to secure affordable contraceptives for Planned Parenthood affiliates, health departments, and health organizations serving low-income women.  Thinking strategically like a political scientist, she figured out how to use the market laws of supply and demand to ensure some control over the pricing and supply of contraceptives. 

Charbonneau reminded the graduating seniors that their courses had helped them develop a variety of skills that would serve them well.  These include not just knowledge of particular facts and concepts, like the Electoral College or the difference between fascism and socialism.  The graduating students had also gained valuable writing and speaking skills, particularly in the areas of persuasion and analysis.  “You have learned how to learn; which is the largest gift that your education provides for you.  I am an employer of 500 contributing individuals, and I especially value these skills.”  Beyond the issue of jobs and careers, Charbonneau also noted that a degree in political science equips students for broader roles as citizens.    “The world we live in today needs people with the very skills you now have, to make it a place where we will want to live in the future.” 

Charbonneau closed by telling the students: “Whatever your beliefs, your cause or your passion, define a solution and work to be part of that.  You are graduates in Political Science from the University of Washington, and you have the tools.” 

The Department of Political Science congratulates Christine Charbonneau as the winner of out 2015 Distinguished Alumni Award.  She joins a group of award winners that includes important leaders in politics, business, education, advocacy, and the arts. 


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