From serving food to serving families

By Elisabeth Schnebele

Erin Kerrigan

Erin Kerrigan

courtesy photo

When Erin Kerrigan enrolled at the University of Washington Bothell in 2007, she was a non-traditional student in her late 20s. She didn’t know what she wanted to do with a college degree, but she also knew she was ready to break away from her decade-long career of mixing drinks and waiting tables.

Not long after starting at UW Bothell, Kerrigan got a student job at the Career Center. “I credit my time at the Career Center for how I ended up on the path I am on now,” she said. “They gave me my first office job and the skill set I needed to build my resume. I also got to learn so much about possible career paths by talking with fellow students who were in similar situations as I was.”

Kerrigan graduated in 2011 with a degree in Global Studies and a minor in Human Rights. She now works as a community engagement manager for the Washington State Department of Children, Youth & Families, a new agency created two years ago.

Doing our part

“If you would have told me before I enrolled at UW Bothell that I would go into education, child welfare and public policy, I would have thought you were crazy,” Kerrigan said. “But I am so happy I ended up where I did.”

A big part of Kerrigan’s job is ensuring that people affected by policies also have the opportunity to influence legislative and policy changes.

In the past year, Kerrigan has focused on populations severely impacted by COVID-19. “I work a lot with daycare and preschool centers, and they have had a really tough year,” she said. “They don’t get the same regulations and protections that K-12 does. Someone has to take care of the essential workers’ children, so they have to stay open.”

Since the pandemic began, every day feels like a triage, Kerrigan said.

“We are constantly trying to fix and repair. We even had DCYF workers sheltering in place in motels with foster children who didn’t have anywhere else to go,” she said.

“We are all just doing our best to make sure everyone is safe and able to get their basic needs met.”

Working together

Kerrigan spent a lot of time before the pandemic attending town halls and community meetings and mediating conversations among people.

“The people that show up to these meeting are very passionate advocates who feel they need to fight for what they want,” Kerrigan said. “They won’t take a standard boilerplate answer because, for most, this may be the first and only time they can talk to a government representative to explain their communities’ situation and actually get a response.”

Kerrigan is committed to ensuring that these exchanges are productive for constituents. She said her time as a waitress prepared her for this role because those years in customer service gave her thick skin and the ability to not take things personally.

“A lot of constituents can get really angry, but I know they aren’t mad at me,” she said. “They are mad at the government. My job is to be the neutral intermediary.”

Kerrigan’s job is more than just navigating situational conflict. She also gets to travel around the state connecting with people and building personal relationships. “It’s the dynamic and collaborative work that inspires me and gets me excited,” she said.

Aspirations and achievements

Kerrigan wants more young people to consider entering public service.

“In my opinion, they aren’t represented well enough in public service. I would really like to see more millennials occupying these seats and taking up these conversations,” she said. “I think fresh graduates have ideas that will work better and improve our state. They are smarter and more capable than they may think they are — and we need those voices and perspectives.”

As a former UW Bothell student, Kerrigan also encourages students to take advantage of all the services offered on campus. “It can be the difference in your life post college,” she said. “It was for me.”

“There is no question that if I had not engaged with student services at UW Bothell, I would not have the job I have now.”


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