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Wellesley College students greet alumna Madeleine Albright with gratitude - and a sandwich

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  January 24, 2012 07:10 PM

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Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright marches around the deli counter of El Table at Wellesley College and ties a green apron around her pantsuit. She is completely comfortable at the student-run cooperative cafe, authoritatively cutting a sandwich into smaller bites for the 20 gathered students to sample.

And why wouldn't she feel at home? Albright not only graduated from Wellesley in 1959 with a bachelor's degree in political science, but she also earned her spending money working at -- and managing -- this exact cafe during her junior and senior years.

"It looks better -- it wasn't this elegant," she said of her former workplace, noting the cafe has added space and chairs. "I only sold snacks. I didn't have to make sandwiches."

Although Albright said she has visited Wellesley over 15 times since she graduated, student workers made today's trip special by introducing a new sandwich named after her -- the "Madeleine All-Bite," complete with hummus, tomatoes, mixed greens, sprouts, and roasted red peppers, situated between whole grain bread.

Standing beside Albright, current El Table manager Claire Grossman ran through the buffet of ingredients for the former cabinet member's opinion on sandwich-building. "Lettuce or mixed greens?" Grossman asked. "And what's your policy on mustard?"

Albright said working at the cafe was her second job on campus -- the first was collecting laundry during her freshman year -- and that managing the eatery taught her responsibility she would use in later years.

"I had to make sure we had the right food and supplies, and make sure it was staffed," she said, also noting she took care of the restaurant's finances.

Three years ago, Albright also helped establish the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs, where 40 Wellesley students gather to discuss international problems, challenges and solutions over an uninterrupted three-week span. Albright was the nation's first female secretary of state, serving under President Bill Clinton.

Albright's involvement in the Wellesley program has brought her back to her alma mater numerous times, including today, when she headed up a panel to critique students' work.

"I love it -- I think it's a great place," Albright said of the campus. "I love meeting the students here. I feel like it's a home."

In a Wellesley College Science Center lecture hall, Albright is suddenly all business. Perched in a plush red armchair, her eyebrows furrow as she absorbs students' ideas on global policies and change.

"Many issues are no longer the issues of tomorrow, but issues of today," said Wellesley senior and Albright Fellow Lily Zhang, citing climate change as a key topic. "We can no longer sit around until resources change. A shift needs to occur in which these are not someone else's problems, but everyone's problems."

Other students outlined an idea for a school in Ethiopia, and how after writing a mock five-year plan, a select few will iron out the proposal and submit it to Wellesley College's president for actual implementation.

Albright offered her opinions after an hour of presentations and student input, urging the young women to think long-term before putting a solution into practice.

"The last thing I'd want is to discourage anyone with remarkable ideas to pursue them, but make sure they have roots and think about the sustainability," Albright said.

"I think it's a very great idea to have a school in Ethiopia, but it won't survive if you don't bring in other aspects," she said, citing local government cooperation and providing citizens with clothes as important concepts to consider.

Albright and the two other panelists -- former World Bank president James Wolfensohn and his Wellesley graduate wife, Elaine -- also stressed the importance of globewide interconnectivity via telephone, the Internet, and social media, pointing to the recent Egyptian riots and Arab Spring as direct results of free information spreading.

Albright also nodded to Zhang, noting that she would remember Zhang's point on making seemingly distant issues relative to the present.

"The paradigm shift is now," Albright said. "Information technology tells you what you need to know."

Wellesley junior Moriah Smith stood up to thank Albright, adding that she joined the program with an eagerness to learn from her peers.

"I really appreciate everything you've done for us," Smith said, choking up. "After all is said and done, I don't know how to be more grateful."

"It is truly thrilling, and I am so proud of all of you," Albright said. "I really am."

Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jreiss.globe@gmail.com.

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