Outstanding Alumni Award winner Jane Sherburne, second from right, with Arvonne and Don Fraser, left, and Esther WattenbergOutstanding Alumni Award winner Jane Sherburne, second from right, with Arvonne and Don Fraser, left, and Esther Wattenberg

Advocate for the people

Alumna Jane Sherburne has applied social-work values and background from Washington to Wall Street

Jane Sherburne, M.S.W. ’78, has put her social work values and background to work from Washington to Wall Street. But she didn’t come to the U with social work in mind.

Sherburne grew up in the north metro and volunteered at a youth center during high school. In college, she majored in English and volunteered at an after-school program for girls in northeast Minneapolis. Sometimes she drove them home.

“The kids came from really tough backgrounds,” she remembers. “I remember times there would be no lights on, no food, no greeting.”

Sherburne got close to some of the girls she worked with. She realized the importance of an after-school program but also how much broader the challenges were. Then she met Esther Wattenberg, a professor in social work, headquartered at the time in Ford Hall.

“Esther was working on policy, early childhood development, childcare issues—a lot of ideas directed at interventions in much earlier stages of life,” says Sherburne. “That made so much sense to me.”

As a master’s student in social work, Sherburne became a research assistant for Wattenberg at the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA), and Wattenberg became her adviser and mentor. Sherburne watched Wattenberg generating ideas, connecting people, and writing eloquent papers and opinions for editorial pages.

“She is the quintessential problem solver,” says Sherburne. “She looked at problems more broadly and systematically. Esther was a great role model and the perfect person to help me translate what I had started observing one girl at a time into a public policy framework.”

Wattenberg introduced Sherburne to U.S. Representative Don Fraser and his wife, Arvonne Fraser. Sherburne got a summer internship on Fraser’s staff in Washington.

“Don was promoting the kinds of things that Esther was advocating, and Arvonne was focused on income security for older women,” says Sherburne. “Between Esther and Arvonne, they covered the lifespan of vulnerability, addressing gaps that so many people take for granted. For me, it was a natural progression from doing graduate work to work in public policy.”

From social work to public policy

After graduating, Sherburne went to work full time on Fraser’s staff, focusing on gender inequality in the Social Security system and income insecurity more broadly. When Fraser left Congress in 1979, Sherburne stayed in Washington, joining the Carter Administration to help implement the congressional mandate of Fraser’s earlier work.

Sherburne could see that a law degree would be useful in the policy work she aspired to do in Washington, so she went to law school while starting a family.

Today Sherburne’s list of accomplishments includes serving as legal counsel for a watershed higher education case before the Supreme Court, for the White House and several major corporations, as well as pro bono work on many public interest cases. She now divides her time between Washington and New York, focusing on public company boards she has joined and on nonprofit work.

Sherburne has won many awards for her leadership and impact and last spring received the University’s Outstanding Alumni Award, its highest alumni honor. Wattenberg and the Frasers were there and spoke at the program.

And once again, Sherburne was inspired by her mentor.

“Esther’s still doing it! We began talking about an issue she is working on—she is still thinking about solving intractable problems,” says Sherburne. “She illustrated to me one more time the kind of an impact one person can have.”

Learn more about the School of Social Work.

Story by Gayla Marty | Photo by Raleigh Kaminsky