It may be unusual for a 13-year-old to discover her calling in life, but it happened for Bronwyn Clarke. Now all grown up and focusing on her vocation, this fall she will be heading to Oxford University to continue pursuing her dreams of working in the world of politics.
“Knowing what I wanted to do at an early age really put me on a great path,” she said. “I consider it a rare gift to know early on – it’s something to build upon and cherish.”
This month Clarke reached a milestone when she graduated from University of Washington-Tacoma with a Bachelor of Arts in Politics, Philosophy and Economics and a minor in Global Engagement. She did so with high honors too, earning the President’s Medal for achieving the most distinguished academic record at the University among her graduating class. Her newly won bachelor’s degree is in addition to the Associate of Arts degree in Political Science with emphasis on economics she had already earned from South Puget Sound Community College as a Running Start student.
Clarke also engaged heavily in co-curricular learning outside of school through student government at UWT. Among her accomplishments there, a highlight was working with UWT Chancellor Dr. Mark A. Pagano and members of the administration to institute a $12 minimum wage for campus workers, including students.
“I led a task force to figure out what students were saying, what the facts were on how it would impact us and what policy we wanted to propose going forward,” Clarke explained. “The chancellor followed our recommendations to a ‘T’ so I think that may have helped with the President’s Award.”
Clarke said that, overall, student government has been the best professional experience of her life. One of the things that made it so was the opportunity to collaborate on drafting a memorandum on shared governance at the university.
“We got that signed by the chancellor the day of commencement. Hopefully that will establish in writing the principals of shared governance – of having administration, students, faculty and staff at the same decision making table.”
Clarke has several months off before she’s due at Oxford to engage in a two-year Masters degree program in comparative social policy, which involves comparing and contrasting the welfare systems of European countries and the U.S. When she finishes up at Oxford in 2018, Clarke is looking to build up more of her knowledge of social policy in Washington, D.C. by working for a non-profit public policy organization like the Brookings Institution.
“Then after I get that experience and connections, I’d love to come back to Washington, preferably Tacoma, and maybe run for office.”
Her mom and dad hailing from South Africa, Bronwyn was born in Southern California shortly after her parents immigrated to the states in the early 90s. Her father was working in the geographical information systems industry in South Africa and came to the U.S. to ultimately land the family in Olympia where the regional headquarters for the company is located.
“My parents made a significant commitment to going back to visit frequently, so every two to three years growing up, we’d go back for a month or two. When I was 12 or 13, we did a year of South African history as well, so it was cool for our mom to teach us that as part of our heritage.”
It was on one of those trips that Clarke experienced a moment that would shape her future life aspirations – hearing Senator John McCain speak negatively of then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama.
“We were on our way to South Africa one year around Halloween time and I was in an airport passively watching a TV. John McCain was talking to a reporter and he said something like, ‘You know what my Halloween nightmare is? Obama being president.’”
Not that the Clarkes were big Obama supporters – Bronwyn comes from a fairly conservative background, she said, but she couldn’t get past McCain’s statements.
“I was 13 and I was shocked at the negative campaigning tactics that were going on. For me, as someone who identified more with McCain’s values, I was wondering why our guy was doing this?
”That sparked a passion in me and I held onto it.”
Three years later Clarke entered public education for the first time through Running Start and spent three years at South Puget Sound Community College studying political science. Prior to this, Clarke had been homeschooled, as was her younger sister Victoria. She said being homeschooled gave her very tangible advantages in her education.
“I was free to explore my interests,” she said. “At the same time, my parents made sure I had a solid foundation in math and sciences and writing.”
Her dad’s commitment to her mathematics education contributed to Clarke’s development as an independent thinker. “He’s very systematic and engrained in this idea that if you get something wrong, you go back and you work until you figure it out. That gave me a really good framework for learning how to teach myself.”
Under her mom’s guidance Bronwyn practiced writing and she authored a fantasy novel series, which helped her find her writing “voice.” She learned chemistry and physics pretty much of her own accord. “If I had problems, I’d take them to my dad.”
Clarke’s parents also helped her to develop sure footing in Christian faith as well, which continues to guide her on her life’s path.
“For me, my faith as a Christian is what informs my political ideology,” she said. “I tend to prioritize my belief that everyone is created with God-given potential. When it comes to my relationships with people, I relate to people with love, concern, care and respect. I’ve come to see that truth is less black and white and more multi-faceted. I respect every opinion because it may show me a facet that I couldn’t see.”
As with her academic studies, Clarke’s parents encouraged her to explore her faith rather than to simply believe what her family believes. She said she went to church her whole life and when she was around 11 years old her parents started to impress on her that Christianity is not a faith that’s handed down; it’s something through which you come into your own if you feel drawn to do so.
“My parents, while I was growing up, always emphasized to know why you believe what you believe – not that you just believe it. For me it was okay to have questions and to ask, ‘why am I a Christian and why should it inform every area of my life?’”
Clarke said she and her younger sister, who is studying aeronautical engineering, have never fit the mold of what is often expected of conservative, Christian women who, unlike the Clarke sisters, are often not encouraged to dream big.
“We’ve always both been unique in that respect among our friends and peers,” she said. “It’s rare to find (conservative, Christian) women who are really passionate about getting a career and giving back to the world in that way, as opposed to seeking a service oriented job like teacher, childcare worker or stay at home mom,” she said.
Indeed, Clarke is an example to encourage other young women to be okay with being different and pursuing passions that may not be the “norm.”
“Being a Christian in politics is hard. There are stereotypes that people project on you, like they say you must be a Reagan, Moral Majority person, and you get boxed into those things. I try to be careful… I want to think for myself about how my faith informs my vocation rather than getting boxed in.”
Clarke has her own take on immigration, for example, borne on her parents’ heritage and how they came to this country as non-citizens years ago. As recent statements during the race for U.S. President have focused on barring Muslim immigrants, Clarke believes differently.
“I have so many friends at school who are Muslim. They’re some of my best friends and they contribute so much diversity of thought. There’s so much missed opportunity to be collaborating with these communities, particularly on the conservative side. They vote liberal because they feel unwelcome in conservative circles, but in reality, they may have the same social conservative views.”
It’s sensibilities like this that drive Clarke and will no doubt impact her viewpoints and decision-making as she continues her quest for education and first-hand experiences on her road to a future in political circles that was sparked that day watching McCain on TV at the airport.
“I’m still repulsed by negative campaigning tactics, but I’ve come to see it’s much bigger than that. It’s also about political ideology – how they influence the policies that we have and the solutions that we’re not finding because of the way our two-party system is constructed. Also, policy is a great way to influence lives and help people, which is really attractive to me.
“I want to give back. I want to challenge this country to live up to its aspirations and ideals because this is my home. This is where my parents chose to stay and where God has placed me.”