Today, Christine R. Charbonneau (B.A., 1982) is the CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, but she started out as a volunteer while studying History at the University of Washington. Planned Parenthood, whose reproductive health mission includes health services, education, and advocacy, is one of the twenty largest not-for-profit organizations in Washington State. Ms. Charbonneau has 500 employees. Looking back, Charbonneau considers her history courses, many of which included learning about social movements, to have been "excellent preparation for the work of leading a social movement."
As CEO, Charbonneau is responsible for building a shared vision of her organization's mission and articulating that vision to potential partners. She explains "much of my time… is spent story-telling… creating a picture of a world that would work so well we would all want to live in it, and giving people a chance to give their money to make it a reality." She credits the skills she built as a History major for much of her success in her current position.
"Working to get my degree in History, I learned to research, write more concisely, argue an intellectual point, assess issues from various angles in various contexts, and organize my thinking into stories evocative of a time and place and set of facts."
"My greatest strength, especially early in my career, was that I was a skilled generalist. I have been grateful for my education in History every day, which honed those generalist skills. Not only can I occasionally pull some salient fact out of deep memory, but being able to argue persuasively for my cause has been vital for inspiring staff and supporters. Envisioning, then being able to convey exciting ideas and goals and motivate people to work together over three states (and three time zones) and on nationwide projects has made my organization stronger."
From History major to CEO
As an undergraduate, Christine Charbonneau specialized in Modern U.S. and Modern British History, which, she explains, "dovetailed nicely" with her second major in Political Science. She remembers taking courses with Professor George Behlmer in particular, saying of her time as a History major, "it was hard and it was fun!" After completing her bachelor's degree in 1982, facing the same decisions as all new graduates, she resisted social pressures to pursue business or law and instead decided to follow her passion at Planned Parenthood where she felt her labor would be put to more important use. Her volunteer experience eventually qualified her for a paid position running the cervical cancer screening program. While she remembers that that first job had "very low" pay, it paid off in the long run.
"The advice to 'do what you love and the money will follow' proved true for me, over the years."
Over the next decade, she started up a new Planned Parenthood in Little Rock, Arkansas, returned to Seattle as Chief Operations Officer of the Seattle Planned Parenthood, and finally became CEO in 1992. As CEO she has overseen the merger of Seattle, Tacoma and Everett branches to become Planned Parenthood of Western Washington, and then a subsequent merger with Alaska and Idaho branches in 2008 to create Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest.
On using a history degree in the professional world
Part of what makes a history degree so valuable in the professional world, is its degree of difficulty, and breadth of skills needed in order to achieve success. While Charbonneau "loved the rigor of the field" she acknowledges that it is not for the faint of heart. She warns, "if you are at University to 'check the box' to get a degree just to get a college degree, don't even dream of thinking about this path." She remembers reading hundreds of pages per week and going through multiple drafts of challenging research papers. For those considering majoring in History, Charbonneau has this advice:
"History is the cornerstone of a solid educational foundation. You are likely to find this education highly relevant to your life and your career. A History major is a serious intellectual work-out. The content itself will give you important information that you would use often, but the skills surrounding the discipline of History are hard to match for the flexibility of their application in the non-academic world."
She has found this to be true not only as a young job-seeking graduate, but even more so in her subsequent role as an employer.
"I have told many fellow employers that if they want people that they can place into a position and get a result, they would be well served to hire historians. Historians figure things out. Historians are taught to cast their minds over a large landscape, and dive into minutia."
I have been hiring people now for 30 years and look for certain traits in people I tap for positions: being well spoken, being able to write, being curious, being creative, exhibiting endurance under difficult or trying circumstances, demonstrating tenacity in execution, showing a willingness to roll up one's sleeves to get something done, taking hard feedback and sharing praise. I never look for people trained in a narrow field or with skills so specific that they do not translate to unrelated work. I know what it takes to get a degree in History, and feel that many historians have these desirable qualities."
A life-long student of history
When Ms. Charbonneau was an 18-year-old Freshman in the UW Department of History she remembers being "shocked" to find herself in class with some much older students "who had lived some of the history [she] was studying" and recalls scrambling to catch up with their knowledge. It is a feeling that historians at every level are familiar with—there is always more to learn. Now she looks forward to the day when she can return to the UW to take advantage of our Access Program (which allows Washington State residents aged 60 and older to audit classes) in order to fill in what she missed as an undergraduate. She reflects, "my only regret is that I did not have the time to start with the Ancients and work my way forward. I may be an eighty year old lady sitting in [Smith] Hall getting that done some day."