Louisa Terrell: From Tufts to the Biden administration

Matt H. Wade via Wikimedia Commons
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Move-in day for college first-years is a day full of nerves, fear and excitement. Parents ferry bags up and down stairs while new students with first day jitters do their best to present a calm facade. Louisa Terrell’s (LA’91) first day at Tufts was the same. She arrived at Tufts in 1987, a little lost as she attempted to navigate her way through the beginning of her first year. Terrell walked the lonely footsteps so many Tufts first-years do. Now, she is President Joe Biden’s White House director of legislative affairs.

Terrell has had an illustrious career in public policy, and she began her career trajectory at Tufts as an American studies major.

“Right away [I] knew that American studies was the perfect major for me,” Terrell said. “It allowed me to knit together a lot of things that I was interested in.”

Raised in Wilmington, Del., Terrell moved to New England to attend Tufts and quickly fell in love with the area. Terrell, a former resident of Hodgdon Hall and a self-proclaimed “downhill girl,” loved her time at Tufts and met some of her closest friends during her college years.  

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“My dearest friends in the world are still the people I met at Tufts,” Terrell said. “Those were some anchor pieces for me.”

She also made deep connections with people through her involvement in athletics, playing on both the squash team and rowing on the crew team over the course of her time at Tufts. Athletics allowed Terrell to meet all kinds of new people from varying class years.  

“It was a great way to have a … connection at Tufts,” Terrell said.

After graduating Tufts in 1991, Terrell moved to New York to attend law school at Syracuse University. However, she soon realized she wanted to return to Boston and transferred to Boston College Law School.  

Law appealed to Terrell because, in many ways, it felt like a continuation of American studies and an intersection of her many interests.

“What I liked about law school … is you sort of have choices about how you solve problems,” Terrell said.  “Whatever the issue is — immigration, infrastructure, foreign policy — there’s always a balancing of equities. You can do that in a courtroom.”

After graduating Boston College Law School in 1995, Terrell was a self-proclaimed “baby lawyer” still trying to figure out what to do with her life. She had to make a choice: Should she be a trial attorney or should she use her law degree to enact change through public policy?

Terrell ended up being an intern for the mayor of Cambridge. In this job, she attended many city council meetings, which gave her a first taste of politics. She decided to take the public policy path and move to Washington, D.C.

Life in Washington was very different from Terrell’s life in Boston, and living in the capital presented its own obstacles.

“D.C. is a very one-horse town,” Terrell said. “It’s all politics all the time. At times, that can be kind of exhausting. I miss my friends who are teachers and artists and writers.”

However, Terrell found that some aspects of life in the district greatly appealed to her, including the work ethic of her colleagues and their commitment to making the world a better place.

“They’re just really smart … people who are really thinking about solving problems all the time,” Terrell said. “I find it’s inspirational.” 

In Washington, Terrell advanced her career, landing a job in legislative affairs in the Obama administration. She worked as a member of the team responsible for determining the best way for the president and vice president to move legislation through Congress. Terrell held this job for two and a half years and learned the ropes of how best to work with Congress and make sure the president received the information he needed.

Now, with the Biden administration, Terrell is working in the same area of the presidential administration. This time, however, she is leading the team. 

“It’s always good … to do a job twice because then you’re not totally clueless on round two,” she said.

Terrell sees her job as having three major components.The first is leading and working with a cohesive team. Terrell addresses her team every morning in order to share information on what Congress is doing and how best to move forward.

“I’m talking to [the team] at the beginning of the day and the end of the day,” Terrell said.  “What do we learn? What do we need to do? How are you issue spotting?”

The second element of Terrell’s job is communicating with the White House. She must anticipate what the president and vice president need to know to do their jobs as strongly as possible. 

“What [are] the president and the vice president trying to achieve today?,” she explained. “What are our messages? What are we doing to move our legislative goals ahead?” 

This aspect of the job also involves communicating with other members of the political scene and spreading the word, which Terrell credits with making a huge difference in getting legislation passed.

“Part of the reason we got the American Rescue Package done was because it was very popular and people knew about it,” Terrell said.

The last piece of Terrell’s job is handling issues on the fly and reacting to the day’s events as they transpire. There is no way to predict what happens in a day’s worth of politics, so Terrell and her team must be able to act quickly and adapt to changing circumstances.  

“You’re adapting every day about the news of the world,” Terrell said.

Terrell acknowledges that communicating is particularly difficult because the pandemic makes her job even more unpredictable, and not everyone can be physically present at Capitol Hill or the White House. 

“[In] a job like this in particular, you’re trying to be the connective tissue. You’re creating a great spiderweb, and in some ways, it’s really hard to do that,” Terrell said. “There’s a lot of back and forth, trying to make it feel kind of seamless.”

Terrell is also challenged by having to work with an incredibly divided Senate. Navigating the complexities of Congressional relations presents many difficulties when trying to push forward with achieving policy goals. Terrell recognizes the high stakes of her job and how important it is that the quality of her work is always high.

You have to be patient, you have to be looking around the corner and thinking of ways of how your plan could go off into 16 different directions,” Terrell said. “You have to give people the benefit of the doubt and go in with good faith.”

Though the job is difficult at times, Terrell loves the team she works with and how she can learn from her coworkers.

“My personal goal is to keep doing what I’m doing, which is bring a team around you that is smarter and better than you and then get out of their way,” she said.

She feels privileged to be in a job where she knows her work matters. Plus, she experiences perks from holding her position in Washington.

“I walk into the White House every day,” she said.  ”That’s just amazing. And I can’t believe it.” Looking back on her time at Tufts, Terrell sees how the lessons she learned in college still help her in her career today. As a first-year, Terrell had to learn how to deal with discomfort and manage new situations. Once she did that, she saw that “Tufts just sort of opened up, and it was just such a gratifying place to be.”

She acknowledged the lasting impact that her experience at Tufts has had on her career.

“Every two years, I … do something different in my career, for better or for worse,” she said. “And every time I do it, I have to kind of remind myself of that lesson that I learned when I was 17 at Tufts.”

Now settled in her job, Terrell is thankful that Biden stepped up to take on the difficult task of being president in this challenging moment. She has faith in his ability to lead.

“I’m enormously grateful that he chose to do this and to really take good care of our country and our communities and our families,” Terrell said. “I think there’s no one better suited for where we are in this moment.”

Terrell continues to pursue her public policy goals and does her best to assist the president in his agenda. She is honored that Biden chose her to take on this task and knows there is a lot of work to do.

“If I can help in any small, small way, that’s a deep, deep privilege,” she said. “This isn’t just repair work that we have to do. There are deep structural pieces, whether it’s how we tax people, where the work opportunities are, our existential crisis of climate … [or] understanding [how] racial equity shows up in every single place in our government.”

Though Terrell has moved beyond Tufts’ gates, she still remembers her roots and lets her experiences and friendships made at Tufts anchor her.

“There are moments where I have to call my girlfriend who I met at Tufts, who has nothing to do with this world [of politics], and just get a gut check,” she said.

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