Clinton School Helps Sur Write Life’s Second Chapter

For many students, the Clinton School of Public Service fits neatly into an educational continuum. For Penelope Sur (’09), the Clinton School was a major element of her life’s second chapter.

“I was at a transition point in my life where I’d just got divorced and I was a single mother with two children,” she said. “I wanted to show an example to my children that I could go back to school and become a better version of myself, even if I was alone and facing a hard world.”

Sur grew up in France and Belgium, arriving in the U.S. in 1996. When her marriage ended, she began the laborious process of earning her communications degree through the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, after which mentors directed her to the Clinton School.

Her upbringing in Europe provided the kind of diverse life experiences and worldview for which the Clinton School’s students are known. But once enrolled, it was readily apparent her perspectives pushed the definition of diversity beyond mere race, ethnicity, or country of origin.

“I was an older student compared to my classmates, in my early 30s,” she said. “I was a mother and a single parent. I was everything they were not, and we complemented each other beautifully.”

“I remember vividly we had a midterm or something, and one morning I woke up from sleeping on my computer on my kitchen counter. I opened my eyes, my face still on my laptop, and I looked at my 3-year-old daughter in her pajamas with socks and shoes on, her hair kind of-sort of done, and my son stepped up and got her and her lunchbox ready. They woke me up to say, ‘Hey, Mom, we have to go to school.’”

Sur shared her unique perspectives with her classmates never as an excuse, but always as first-person ballast in whatever discussion was at hand.

“In my class, I believe there were only three or four of us foreigners. So, when we were talking about immigration, for example, we were the immigrants,” she said. “I lived through having my fingerprints taken, you know, shaking when you go through the INS booth every time you come in the country. I could tell my classmates in real life, this is what it feels like. You guys have never lined up at 4 in the morning with a newborn child in front of the INS to get your fingerprints taken. You didn’t have to do that, we did.”

Sur said her goal for a career in the for-profit sector was also something unusual to many of her classmates.

“My path shows there is another side to public service, where you’re a good human and a good public servant yet you work for a corporation,” she said. “I needed to make a substantial paycheck because I was the head of the household, and I needed health insurance.”

Sur found ways to meld these philosophies in ways that weren’t mutually exclusive. During her Clinton School years and afterward, she was involved with local workforce and immigrant organizations and the mayor’s office to improve education and employment opportunities. Her Capstone sought to better connect various populations with Arkansas’s community college programs to feed industries desperate for skilled labor.

“What I leveraged from the Clinton School was, first thing, being a better-rounded human, for sure,” she said. “We studied social change and how social change evolves. And doing our field research, I really learned how to become analytical, to build an action plan and think about the impact of all the elements of that action plan. I think that ties in beautifully with the career I chose in human resources where I am today.”

Now, as Vice President of Talent for Dick’s Sporting Goods, Sur leads all talent acquisition, talent management, and learning and development functions. She works daily to create inclusive and meaningful work opportunities by which employees can provide for their families with dignity.

“We are in charge of talent acquisition, as well as performance management,” Sur said. “And the third leg of my function is around education, development, and learning. That’s for our 850 stores, for the corporate headquarters here in Pittsburgh, as well as for our five distribution centers across the country.”

As for what parts of her job she enjoys the most, Sur’s passion lies in seeing others reach their full potential.

“I truly enjoy creating opportunities for our teammates – our employees – to become better versions of themselves every day, leveraging learning opportunities, mentoring, networking, and promotions,” Sur said. “Dick’s Sporting Goods is an amazing organization where everyone can reach their full professional potential. Dick’s Sporting Goods’ mission is to create confidence and excitement by personally equipping all athletes – our customers – to achieve their dreams. I am proud of the teams I work with and the mission we stand for.”

Sur said that she will always reflect back on her time at the Clinton School fondly, and recognizes the role it played in shaping her today.

“People’s priorities in my class were absolutely phenomenal, and it made me a better-rounded human to be around people who had the heart to do good and change the world,” she said. “My education at the Clinton School influenced me to broaden that network. It influenced me to understand how the world works. At the same time, I developed the strong belief that public service needs to support corporations so that they can support humans so that they can create better lives for themselves.”

Penelope Sur is a 2009 graduate of the Clinton School of Public Service and currently serves as the Vice President of Talent for Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Story written by Dwain Hebda.



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