July 6, 2020

As the 2020 Legislative Session neared its end late last month, I was approached to help gather interesting background information for an honorary resolution to recognize the contributions of Senator Harris McDowell, III, during his 44 years of elected public service.  As you may know, Senator McDowell is the Chairman of the Delaware Sustainable Energy Oversight Board. While preparing data to summarize the environmental and social impacts of our programs, I started to have a series of flashbacks with my own Senator McDowell interactions.

A Chinese Ph.D. student, University of Delaware, Interview

It was summer 2015, and the meeting with my advisor was wrapping up. My mind has already flown off for the vacation. All of a sudden, I heard my name called, followed by something like “Ready for a job interview?”. With a vacation-mode brain, I said “Sure!” happily without really knowing what was just said. Then, my advisor waved at me and led me into the conference room next door.

Sitting in the room at the conference table was a shrewd looking gentleman wearing a suit. The summer sun shone on his silver hair from the back. I stood there silently looking down at the floor, trying really hard to recall what my advisor was saying before he brought me in.  Then, I heard a very friendly voice.

“Hi! You’re Athena, right? I’m Harris. Senator Harris McDowell. I’m looking for a legislative fellow with expertise in the energy field. Why not sit down and tell me about yourself?”

I’m not certain those were his exact words, but whenever I recall this piece of memory, I always feel the warmth in my heart. It’s the impression of his caring and soothing tone, along with the witty remarks.

State Senate Energy Fellow, Legislative Hall, 3 years

Working as Senator McDowell’s energy fellow was more challenging and exciting than I imagined. Initially, I was quite intimidated by the Legislative Hall atmosphere and the legislators ‘power’ walking around.  Senator McDowell took the time to introduce me to every legislator we met. At the beginning of the legislative session, he introduced me to the Senate floor. He encouraged me to sit in the relevant hearings, committee meetings, and advisory council meetings. At the end of the workday, he would set aside time for me to check-in with him about my work.

After a month or so working at Legislative Hall, I was more recognized and no longer as timid interacting with staff and officials. That’s when I realized that I was treated as hatchling before. Gradually, I felt more comfortable introducing myself, getting to know my colleagues and the legislators, identifying the meetings that I should participate in, and finding time to report my work back to the Senator.

I grew tremendously in this role professionally. However, the most valuable thing I learned from Senator McDowell is fairness. Whenever a utility bill comes in, he always wants me to check on the impact on the group whose voice has not yet been heard. Sometimes it’s the environment, the endangered species, other times it becomes the utility payers, low-income community, or the general public. Fairness, Justice, and Equality used to be abstract terms that I learned a lot. However, they become practical and I used them as the judging criteria besides economic development and job creation.

Entrepreneur, Chairman of the Board, Associate Program Manager

My go-to conversational icebreakers used to be topics like entrepreneurship, IT, and outdoor activities.  You may have known someone who can’t stop talking about his/her passions. I used to be one of them. Luckily for me, Senator McDowell himself is a passionate entrepreneur. When I became comfortable with my role at Legislative Hall, he reminded me of the ambition I shared with him 3 years ago and encouraged me to go to bigger cities. To me he is just like the coach of Seattle Seahawks, he taught me to “always compete”.

After working as a Senior Principle at Gartner, Inc., an S&P 500 management consulting company for a year, I saw a position advertised with Energize Delaware. Being away from the energy and sustainability field, I felt the urge to come back. The idea of mentioning my interest in applying with Energize Delaware to Senator McDowell had crossed my mind.  However, I never followed through with telling him. After I accepted the position of Associate Program Manager with Energize Delaware and attended my first Oversight Board Meeting, the Senator was pleasantly surprised to see me and complimented me on taking the position.

Back to Now and look ahead

Energize Delaware and I have both been greatly influenced by Senator McDowell. He has tirelessly given his time and resources to enhance the programs offered by the DESEU. Having such an awesome Board Chairman has made us all spoiled. To us, his retirement from the state Senate is not a farewell but graduation.

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