Prominent women talk success in public service

By Lauren Lavelle

(From left) Ayesha Hamilton, Myra Gutin, Joan Mazzotti, Kristin Giacalone, Jessica Plumeri.

In honor of Women’s History Month, the Rider community was invited to attend a panel on March 1 entitled “Building a Pipeline For Women in Public Service” that showcased those who have made their mark through public service opportunities.

Presented by the Rider Women’s Leadership Council, the event consisted of three panelists and moderator Myra Gutin, a communication professor.

Gutin kicked off the discussion with a question about the stories behind the women’s success and the paths they traveled to get there.

Undersheriff of Mercer County Jessica Plumeri said her journey began as a young girl when her father, a homicide detective in Trenton, introduced her to his female intern.

“In the ’70s, you didn’t really see many female police officers, let alone a seasoned narcotics or homicide detective who wanted to take on a female intern,” she said.

With her interest peaked, Plumeri graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from St. Mary’s in Maryland and went on to graduate from the New Jersey Division of the Criminal Justice Academy.

She was offered a position in the special investigations unit at the Mercer County’s Prosecutor’s Office where she focused on the illegal distribution of narcotics.

“It was an up-and-coming career,” Plumeri said. “I worked with a group of men who were extremely supportive of me and my success. Law enforcement women tend to get pigeonholed sometimes. I didn’t have that experience, and I’m grateful for that.”

Plumeri took a brief hiatus from law enforcement in 2002 when she earned her master’s in education from TCNJ. She served as a second grade teacher in the Hopewell Valley School District for six years before returning to the Criminal Justice Academy.

“It was a great experience looking at it through the eyes of a 38-year-old as opposed to a 21-year-old when I first went,” Plumeri said.

Plumeri was placed in the special investigations unit once again, where she remained until 2016 when Mercer County Sheriff Jack Kemler appointed her undersheriff.

As undersheriff, Plumeri oversees the Trenton-Mercer County Airport, Policy Development and Training, Court Security and a number of other projects.

“I was fortunate enough for our sheriff to offer me a position to come on as an administrator,” Plumeri said. “I’ve been there for two years, and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

New Jersey attorney and West Windsor Councilwoman Ayesha Hamilton traveled a different road in life: one that began with a childhood in India and led to a law degree in the United States.

“I never questioned my pathway to law school. I just always thought, ‘Yeah, that’s right. That’s where I’m going,’” she said.

Hamilton became licensed to practice law in 1998 and started her career with a civil litigation firm before a friend approached her in 2015 and asked her to run for West Windsor Township Council.

She said she was hesitant to accept the offer because she was not aware of the impact local government had on her everyday life.

“Most of us go through our lives really not understanding the role of local government,” she said. “We know what the senators do and we know what the president does, but we really have no sense of what local government does.”

She eventually decided to accept the request and began campaigning for the West Windsor Township Council’s general election in November 2015.

“I am an employment lawyer so I spent a lot of my time [complaining] about how women don’t get opportunities, and here I am getting an opportunity shoved down my throat and I’m saying no,” Hamilton said. “So, I decided I was going to do it. I was certain I was going to lose because I’d only lived there two years and no one knew me.”

To Hamilton’s surprise, she won the election and began a four-year term.

Now, along with maintaining a law firm in Princeton, Hamilton serves on the West Windsor Planning Board, the Cable TV Advisory Board and is the council liaison to the Emergency Services and Public Safety Departments.

“It wakes something up in you,” she said. “I’m not in it for the money, but it’s very fulfilling to feel like I’m making a difference, and people can reach out to me and ask for help and I’m able to at least try.”

The final panelist, Kristin Giacalone, ’97, is the information management coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and entered her freshman year at Rider as a biology major with an interest in environmental issues.

According to Giacalone, Rider’s biology program was heavily geared toward the medical profession, something she was not prepared for. However, a study abroad trip to London her junior year offered her the opportunity to delve into the field she was truly passionate about.

“The school I was studying at had an environmental program in their geography department,” said Giacalone. “I got to take all the environmental classes that I could fit into my schedule, and that really cemented for me that this was something I was interested in.”

After graduation, Giacalone attended Montclair State for graduate school and received an internship at the EPA’s regional office in New York City.

Giacalone enjoyed her time as an EPA intern and jumped at the opportunity for a full-time position after earning her graduate degree.

“It was very fortunate for me because it was the only way I could get a job at the EPA at the time because there was a governmentwide hiring freeze for years,” she said.

Giacalone has been employed by the EPA for 18 years and currently manages site budget and information management for 300 National Priority hazardous waste sites in New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

“It’s fantastic,” she said. “The government is one of those cool places where you can stay in one place and do lots of different things.”

All three panelists discussed their challenges being women in largely male-dominated fields and encouraged audience members to continue to pursue their passions at all costs.

“One of the things I’ve had to overcome is the perception that I can’t do something because I’m a female,” said Plumeri. “That was definitely a challenge for me. I know my strengths; I knew I could run an investigation like no one else could and I could get into that drug dealer’s head. I proved myself by working hard and using my strengths to change that perception, at least in my agency. I think, by doing that, you start to gain the respect of those around you because they see a whole different perspective.”

Giacalone mentioned the use of female mentors early on in her career at the EPA.

“When I went out in the field, I was the only woman there,” she said. “I was the only woman at meetings at sites, and I was the only woman in construction boots and a hard hat. It was crazy to me. As I went through different jobs, I kind of latched onto those women who are in positions of power to learn from them and learn how they develop their confidence.”

Hamilton took the opportunity to address audience members directly and commended them for putting themselves out there.

“It’s important for us to recognize that more of our faces makes a difference,” she said.  “For there to be more of us, there need to be more of you and it’s very important for us to be reaching a hand back to bring you along with us. The fact that you’re here listening to us today says something to me. It tells me that you’re motivated, engaged and willing to be more involved. Take that energy and push it out there.”

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