Serena Saunders Prioritizes Mental Health While Helping Underrepresented Groups Become Civically Engaged

Serena Saunders works as the Communications and Programs Coordinator for Running Start, a nonpartisan nonprofit that trains young women to run for office. She recently earned her Masters of Public Policy from the University of Maryland and she’s invested in helping underrepresented groups become civically engaged.

Growing up in the DC area, politics was always a part of her life.

“As a young Black woman who went to private school with an immigrant for a mother, with a Black man for a father, it’s always kind of been at the forefront of my thoughts,” she says.

In school, Serena loved history and social studies classes. When she joined her high school debate team she realized how much she also enjoyed digging into policy and logistics.

“The great thing about debate is that you have to debate both sides,” Serena adds. 

Building on her experience in debate, Serena applied to the University of Maryland’s undergraduate global studies program. However, just before her first semester, she switched to the sociology program. 

“Sociology seems like a really good way to make a difference,” she explains. 

After a few classes, she realized sociology wasn’t the path for her. Luckily she didn’t have to wait long to find another way she could make a difference. At an on-campus organization fair, she stumbled upon the School of Public Policy booth. 

“This is what I want to do, it was like a light bulb went off,” Serena shares. “So the first person I talked to was Dr. Jennifer Littlefield. And she just changed my life, she became my mentor. I switched my major literally the next week.” 

Building Her Network

Serena was one of the first undergraduate students in the school’s new public policy program. She worked closely with Dr. Littlefield and soon joined a network of faculty and fellow students. 

Along with building her network, she found her career path shortly after entering the program. She learned about the power of nonprofits in one of her first public policy classes.

“I was just fascinated,” she says, “We can look to government for actually making the change, we can look to the power of people for mobilizing change, corporations have their own corporate philanthropy and activism, but nonprofits are actually doing the work.”

She interned with six different nonprofits in college, including Running Start and the University of Maryland’s engineering department, to further develop her network and skillset. 

“Empowering young people and mobilizing and activating that base was something that I found in nonprofits that wasn’t really possible in the other sectors of public life,” she shares.

Know When to Step Back

In addition to her internships and schoolwork, Serena also devoted her collegiate years to campus organizations, including the Student Government Association (SGA). She connected with other women in SGA and together they worked for change. 

“With the guidance of this community of women, I  decided to step back and really focus on the things that I actually genuinely enjoyed, that I could see had a clear impact,” she explains.

As she moved into her full-time role with Running Start after college, she brought the lessons from these strong women with her. And she shares what she learned with the girls coming up behind her.

“Take a break and with that, find your people,” Serena shares. “While I was in SGA I would not have come out on the other side of it, honestly, without the people that I met in it, who were supportive, who understood where I was coming from.”

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