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Seeing the Big Picture

Kristen Donheffner (History, ‘10) turns dense texts into bullet-point brilliance as a policy staffer for a U.S. representative.

Few people can say their work was part of a national debate on one of the most significant pieces of legislation in our country’s history.

However, while Congress was weighing the merits of a provision on end-of-life planning after the Affordable Care Act passed, history alum Kristen Donheffner ‘10 could say she played a role in that discussion.

Donheffner is the lead policy staffer on health care for Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon. She worked behind the scenes for months to build a foundation for the Portland Democrat’s efforts to include advanced care planning language in decisions by the Obama Administration. It required weeks of research and discussions with hospitals, faith-based organizations and doctor and patient groups.

It was the subject of much debate both on Capitol Hill and among pundits and the general public.

“It’s kind of surreal sometimes to take a step back and realize I’m in a committee hearing and we’re discussing these very big and very real issues (that I worked on),” Donheffner said.

On top of health care, she’s also Blumenauer’s lead staffer covering immigration, women’s issues, Social Security, guns and the U.S. Postal Service. She also manages the Neuroscience Caucus, in which she musters support for including federal funding for brain research by building alliances among the National Institutes of Health, Capitol Hill and researchers.

With all of these responsibilities, one skill she uses often—thanks to much practice in school—is condensing beefy texts into a one- or two-page document.

“My boss is not going to read a 50- or 100-page rule that came out, but he’s going to want to know what’s in it,” she said. “Those critical thinking, synthesizing research skills are invaluable.”

In history classes, Donheffner learned to consider the context around events, which helps as she researches the background for proposed legislation.

“We can get so focused on a particular policy or nuance,” she said. “You just have to take a step back and say, ‘How does this fit into the bigger picture? Have we tried this before? Why is this the way it is?’ That gives us clues into how we can refine it and make it better.”

Donheffner credited her professors for encouraging her to think about how she could apply her coursework to life.

“Being a history major, a lot of times people ask me, ‘what are you going to do with that?’” Donheffner said. “I had great professors who showed me I could do anything I wanted with it. They said, ‘this isn’t an academic exercise. This isn’t checking the box that you have a degree. Here’s how you can use it and apply it in the real world.’”

After graduation, Donheffner earned a master’s degree in public health at the George Washington University of Public Health and Health Services in Washington, D.C. That led to a fellowship on a Congressional subcommittee and the connections she built culminated with her job with Earl Blumenauer’s office.

The pace is fast and the expectations are lofty, but it’s rewarding, too. Donheffner attended President Obama’s inauguration in 2013, and came within about 15 feet of the president and first lady at the inaugural ball.

And then there are the times when she’s on the floor of the House, watching the country’s top lawmakers debate legislation she had a role in crafting.

“It’s still definitely surreal, and I think that’s good,” Donheffner said. “The minute it stops being surreal, you lose a certain amount of respect for the trust the American people have given to my boss and the institution. It’s a very cool experience that I never really thought I’d have.”