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Fearless in the pursuit of opportunity

by Jennifer Johnson,

Jennifer Hanscom

How do you become a CEO? Start making some calls.  

Cold calling companies is not the only way Jennifer Lawrence Hanscom ’91 became leader of the largest medical professional association in Washington. In addition to her audacity, her education empowered her to advance from a survey research job in Salem to overseeing Washington State Medical Association’s (WSMA) operations and communications, which includes representing its 11,000-plus healthcare professionals. 

“I feel like my liberal arts education really prepared me for my career journey — traits such as critical thinking, reasoning, problem-solving, persuasiveness, all of it. From the start I was able to apply those learned characteristics to each of my jobs,” she said “Along with a little tenacity.” 

Life beyond Riddle 

A first-generation student who arrived at Willamette after living in Riddle, Oregon — a town of less than 1,500 south of Eugene — Hanscom worried about fitting in, despite moving from one small community to another. 

“I was from a rural community and Willamette seemed so elite,” she said. “So I felt like I had to find my people pretty quickly. Once I did, I knew I’d made the right choice.”

Small town life left her envisioning a different future. Everyone she knew worked at the lumber mill — she did, too, enduring the graveyard shift to support herself during college — and she was more determined than ever to get an office job. Political science seemed requisite for the law degree she’d longed for, so she took up the major and also studied communications. But at some point during a semester spent in Washington, D.C., she realized she could change people’s lives in other ways. 

“I saw the science of politics in real life, and the power of the people around the table making decisions — a lot of them in their 20s — and all that goes into the political machine that runs this country. That made me more open-minded about what I could do for a career,” she said. 

Soon after, she picked up a phone book, looked up “anybody and anything that had lobbyists associated with it” and requested informational interviews. She landed an internship at a Salem lobbying firm, Public Affairs Counsel, her senior year. Later, she found out she got the job because she wanted to be paid — and had the guts to ask. 

“Sometimes you have to go for it and create your own opportunities,” she said. “They’re not always handed to you.” 

Rising through the ranks

That phone call led to nearly seven years at the firm, developing survey research questionnaires, lobbying on behalf of clients and managing numerous campaigns.

In 1996 Hanscom picked up the phone book again. The man who would become her husband lived in Seattle at the time, so she contacted lobbyists to see if she could work on staff for a company there. What started as an informational interview turned into a job offer as director of communications and membership at WSMA, which required her to grow its membership through focused communication efforts. All written communication — newsletters, brochures, op-eds — as well as lobbying and member retention fell on her plate, and it was a great opportunity to apply the liberal arts skills she developed with her work experience, she said. 

“In the space I work in, it’s so important to communicate well — whether you’re trying to pass a piece of legislation, communicating a point to the media or convincing a patient to take action,” she said. 

Her ability to persuade made a difference in people’s lives even when it didn’t fall in her favor. After she was promoted to senior director of public affairs and operations in 2005, one of her many duties involved helping launch an effort with consultants to pass tort reform. Voters weren’t convinced to place caps on non-economic damage awards, but the effort helped inform the public on how high jury awards can be detrimental to the ability to access care, she said. 

Hanscom continued her path becoming the first female CEO at the WSMA in 2013, gaining more operational and leadership responsibility. She realized early on what fulfilled her and she nurtured connections along the way — and didn’t wait for the right moment to arise.  

She's paying it forward, too. Last year, a Willamette student interested in public health contacted her about an internship, but WSMA didn’t have one at the time. So the association created an internship for the student in its policy department, and she is of course getting paid, Hanscom said. 

“By reaching out, you can discover jobs that don’t even exist at the time because you connect with someone and they want to create an opportunity for you,” she said. “Nothing at home set me up for where I am today, except for maybe having grit.” 

About the College of Arts & Sciences

Based in Salem, Oregon, Willamette is the premier private university in the Pacific Northwest. Willamette’s beautiful, historic campus — located across the street from the Oregon State Capitol and co-located with Tokyo International University of America — features a residential undergraduate College of Liberal Arts and two professional graduate schools: the College of Law and the Atkinson Graduate School of Management.

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