Rep. Terri Sewell ’86 (D-Ala.) addressed University community members at an event co-hosted by Whig-Clio and Princeton College Democrats on March 25. During the talk, Sewell discussed how in spite of her “overwhelming” adjustment to Princeton, she was able to persevere. She explained how the values she formed in Alabama and at Princeton allowed her to achieve great success, as she is now the congresswoman representing Alabama’s Black Belt — a region of Alabama known for its dark, rich soils, which contains roughly between 12 and 21 counties and is home to many cities crucial to the Civil Rights Movement.
Before Sewell became the first Black woman ever to represent Alabama in Congress, she was born in Selma, Ala., which is now part of the district she represents in the House of Representatives.
She noted that her district, which also includes Montgomery and Tuscaloosa, was the site of many important events in the Civil Rights Movement, including the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on the bus, and the brutal Bloody Sunday beatings on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
She told the crowd, “I come from a district that has a rich legacy of civil rights and voting rights.”
In her transition from Selma High School to Princeton, she relied heavily on her support team in Alabama and her own belief that she had the ability to be successful.
“The biggest leap for me mentally and literally was the leap from Selma High School to Princeton.” In her hometown, she said, “No one had ever gone to an Ivy League, no one even knew what it was about.”
Sewell said that upon her arrival to campus, she was quite overwhelmed and tried taking up extracurriculars she had done in high school, like becoming a cheerleader and running for class vice president in student government. However, when the time demanded by these activities conflicted with her academics, in particular an economics class she took taught by Alan Blinder, she had to learn how to adjust from the pace and rigor of her Alabama public school to that of Princeton.
In her freshman year at Princeton, Sewell said, she was “woefully behind,” but it didn’t remain that way throughout her time on campus.
“Why I love this institution is because not only did they give me a chance, they gave me every resource, every opportunity to catch up,” Sewell said. “All I had to do was raise my hand and say I need help, and that’s often hard, right, especially when you’re used to being self-reliant.”
“[People back home in Alabama] also told me this, if I didn’t know something, it wasn’t because I was stupid. It was because I haven’t been speaking [up for myself].”
When Sewell arrived at Princeton, the University had an informal program in admissions “where an upperclassman could adopt a freshman.” Her upperclassmen adoptee was Michelle Obama ’85.
“Michelle was my big sister at Princeton, not because of fraternities and sororities, but back in the ’80s, maybe even now, there weren’t that many African Americans at Princeton,” Sewell said.
Following Sewell’s graduation from Princeton, she attended Oxford University as a Marshall Scholar, where she earned her Master’s of Arts. After this, she attended Harvard Law School, where one of her classmates was Barack Obama. She said that in 2007, when she was a partner working at the law firm Maynard, Cooper & Gale in Birmingham, she received a call from Obama; he was running for president at the time and asked for her help in a fundraiser he wanted to throw in Birmingham.
Sewell said that Obama spoke to the congregation at Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, where Sewell was a member, during his presidential campaign. Sewell credited his speech with serving as the spark that made her run for office.
“Flash forward four months, and the seat becomes an open seat, and the next thing you know I’m running for Congress,” Sewell said.
Despite the fact that she was running against 30 other candidates, all of whom had previously held political office, Sewell won. She said she believes that she was able to stand out due to her heart and authenticity. “What I knew in my heart is that the people of this district knew my heart, got to see my heart, not my resume.”
“They would see in me what they wanted for their children, and their children’s children. They would see the authenticity by which I’m offering this season of service to my home district.”
Samuel Kligman ’26, who attended the event, said, “I found her message of all Princeton students having a ‘season of service’ to be incredibly impactful. She truly embodies our motto of being ‘In The Nation’s Service and In The Service of Humanity,’” Kligman said.
Sewell takes pride in her achievements, including expanding manufacturing opportunities in her district, an initiative which required her to work across the aisle with her Republican colleagues.
“We have to figure out a way to shed the stuff, the labels, if you will and really focus on the people,” Sewell said.
Though she said working across the aisle has gotten harder, she said that her time in Congress, in particular during congressional trips abroad, has allowed her to not focus on the political parties of Congressional members but their families and how they were raised. She hopes society uses this outlook more in the future.
“I really resonated with her stories about the difficulty of sharing space and being productive with people whose values are so fundamentally different from hers,” Abby Leibowitz ’26 said.
Abby Leibowitz is a News Staff Writer for The Daily Princetonian.
Sewell added that we must realize that we are all interconnected, and that though she could introduce herself by her affiliations to elite institutions, she always introduces herself as a resident of Selma, making sure to never forget where she came from.
“There’s nothing better than being able to deliver for the people back home. 700,000 people depend upon me to fight for them,” she said.
Although she didn’t expect to be in Congress for as long as she has been, she said is thankful for what she has been able to do and encouraged youth to turn out in elections and run for political office.
Sewell said, “Princeton in the nation of service is about realizing that we have a role to play in the public sphere and the global sphere, frankly, and so let’s play.”
Justus Wilhoit is an assistant News editor for the ‘Prince.’
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