Sylvia Mathews Burwell

Why Social Emotional Skills Rule the World! My College Roommate Will Fix Obamacare

Sylvia Mathews BurwellI am so proud of my freshman college roommate, Sylvia Mathews Burwell. She will be the next Health Secretary  on Obama’s Cabinet.

“President Barack Obama announced Friday that he will nominate Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who currently directs the White House budget office, to be the next health secretary, the Cabinet official who’s ultimately responsible for overseeing Obamacare. During the ceremony, Obama touted Burwell skills as someone who can handle tough challenges.

‘Sylvia is a proven manager, and she knows how to deliver results,” he said. “And she’ll need to be a proven manager because these are tough tasks, big challenges.’

She also has a history in Washington circles that extends beyond her current position.” From CNN

Sylvia Mathews Burwell

That open friendly smile perfectly personifies Sylvia Mathews Burwell, my freshman college roommate.

I’d like tell you what she was like as college roommate. Sylvia was, without question, the hardest working human being I have ever met. She was (and is) extremely disciplined. When I was sleeping through class, she was up early, eating breakfast, and studying. Every Single Day.

As the daughter of Greek immigrants from West Virginia, the story she told me about growing up that stuck with me most was how her father, a optometrist, would size glasses for a child so that they would last a lifetime. He knew that this would be the only pair of glasses the family could afford. I wore contacts in college AND had glasses for when I was too lazy to wear contacts. My family wasn’t wealthy by any means, but I had broken several pairs of glasses as a child (basketball pass gone awry) and they were replaced without much consternation. This was the first time I understood what life might be like in Appalachia.

But it wasn’t just Sylvia’s work ethic that makes her above and beyond different from my other classmates. I met a lot of Type A personalities who are intensely driven in college and you meet a few prodigies. Math prodigies that beat the Russians in an international competitions. Music prodigies that perform at Carnegie Hall before they can drive. Inventors can be prodigies too. Maybe even creative types like Steve Jobs. But have you ever heard of social emotional prodigies?

Sylvia is a prodigy of social emotional skills. I don’t say that lightly. I remember being such an awkward teen that dining halls were best navigated by meeting up with friends. That first week of Freshman Orientation was a mad scramble to make friends to have dining companions. Our freshman dorm was really small — just 31 kids and an advisor. That first week of school, a large group of us ate dinner together. Sylvia has this gift of being the most charming hostess at the dinner table.

Not only could she make pleasant and interesting small talk at the table, but she did it in a way that included everyone while not being a conversation hog. I still have no idea how to do this! And, similarly, I find working a room to be … work. I struggle with the transitions from group to group and it’s not easy to find common ground to connect with everyone. Sylvia should give lessons in how to work a room because she has such integrity in the way she interacts with people that they don’t feel gladhanded.

And did I mention that she’s never in a bad mood? I should know, right?! She really is a person who feels genuine gratitude for what she has received (though others could attribute it to working extremely hard). It lasts from early in the morning to late at night. And she’s not affect by exam stress, kicked of the room from my visitors,  or being kept awake by my snoring. I’m telling you that she keeps an even and happy temperament no matter what the circumstances.

I can see how that would be unusual in politics. It’s easy to be stressed out and having a bad day, and then yell at a few people who now hate you. You do that a few times, and pretty soon, you’ve made a short list of enemies. Sylvia simply does not make enemies. You can’t help but like her even if she gives you bad news. Couple that with her work ethic and her ability to connect with people and you have a social emotional rock star. For anyone who doesn’t think that social emotional skills is the key predictor to success, there is a slew of research.

But I just need to think of Sylvia as my personal touchstone on the importance of social emotional skills versus squeezing out a few more IQ points. For our year at Harvard, there was just one Rhodes Scholar. Guess who it was? Yep, it was Sylvia. She would be the first person to say that she didn’t ace her SATs. That Brooke Shields (who graduated from Princeton our same year) scored a little higher. The Rhodes Scholarship is based on a group interview resembling a cocktail party. I think it is an actual cocktail party. The ability to conduct small group conversations is the key to winning this prestigious scholarship.

It’s weird but I discovered that I have four classmates on Obama’s cabinet. My senior year classmate is Rosie Gumataotao Rios who makes the U.S. money. Another freshman dormmate from that tiny dorm, Shawn Donovan, is the HUD secretary. Arnie Duncan is the Education Secretary though I’ve never met him. I rest easy knowing these folks are working on our nation’s problems, and I can especially assure you that Obamacare is in good hands with Sylvia.

As a parent, my takeaway is to focus on social emotional skills rather than squeeze out a few more I.Q. points. I am reminded of Calpurnia Tate who, in 1899, is expected to make light and pleasant dinner conversation as the only daughter. The story is set in Texas and I wonder if the emphasis on social niceties is a Southern thing?

If you want to try the art of dinner conversation as I do, one idea to try is to use Growing Book by Book’s Table Topics. My husband and I are also finding that delivering meals to the elderly which includes an hour of pleasant conversation helps model this for our kids. We  set ground rules in the car with our kids before we go in:

  • Be helpful
  • Don’t complain about bad smells
  • Introduce yourself
  • Don’t talk about money or politics

Questions to get a conversation going:

  • Where are you from?
  • What brought you to Boston?
  • Do you have siblings?
  • Are there any sports teams you follow?
  • How long have you lived here?
  • Did you play sports when you were younger?

What are ways you work on Social Emotional skills at your house? I’d love to hear your ideas! Thanks!

p.s. I wish I could include some photos of Sylvia from college but my photo albums are back at my mother’s house in California. I’ll add them the next chance I get!

By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. So awesome to see your peers do well, right? Then you discovered there were more. You are in good company.

    I work on social emotional skills with my almost-7-year-old son daily. He’s an only child and LOVES attention. He tries to pull a guilt trip on me when I discipline him. I simply let him know that no matter what, I will always love him. But as his mother, he has to do what I say whether he likes it or not.

    Visiting from This Momma’s Meandering Mondays!
    Kimberly H. Smith recently posted…Rewind Repost: April 2014My Profile

  2. How awesome that you know her! I already admired her for being a very accomplished person who also comes across as very down-to-earth.
    maryanne recently posted…A Flat Stanley Inspired VisitMy Profile

  3. it is wonderful you know them in person. I totally agree social skills are more important. Looking back of my own friends and classmates, those that were top on academics are mostly doing ok, but those are doing exceptional are the ones have great social skills.
    iGameMom recently posted…Learn about Human Skeleton with D.BonesMy Profile

    • Hi iGameMom,
      I never really appreciated the fine art of dinner conversation and other social skills since I was raised in an environment that focused more on academics (my father was a professor that immigrated from China), but I totally agree!! Social emotional skills are probably the most important factor for career success for most jobs since it’s all about collaborative working. And will probably be more so as our kids get older since the world is shrinking so even more collaboration is required!
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…FREE Books from Scholastic through EVEREADY® Gold®My Profile

  4. I don’t know how I missed this important post. I needed to read it. I was about Kathleen leaving, but am even more encouraged by your comments about Sylvia. We need a new breed of leaders who have new ideas and relate at a more evolved state with people. They aren’t there for the perks, but do what needs to be done. I’m really excited that she will be working with Obamacare. It must work. I like the term Social Emotional Skills. Much needed in Washington.

    I grew up on the Ohio Senate floor with our now Gov. John Kasich. He was so idealistic in the 70s-80s. He was a good friend, but I can’t support him. He going down a path I can’t support in Ohio and is really alienating the middle class.

    I’m also watching and supporting Marianne Williamson’s candidacy for Congress. She’s running in the 33 district in San Francisco. Although she’s not from my state, we hold similar beliefs and I want to see her on the ballot.
    Patricia Tilton recently posted…The Monstore by Tara LazarMy Profile

    • Hi Patricia,
      I have to say that I have very little interest in politics in general, but I have always thought my roommate would be President of the United States one day, and if she ever chooses to run, I would totally support her and help her with her campaign in Massachusetts! But she would be the only politician that I would ever do that for!!

      I hope Marianne Williamson wins her election in S.F.! Ohio has some crazy politics that divide down to one side of the street versus the other! My sister-in-law lived in Dayton for years and only recently moved to California. It weird how some states can be so divided politically within the same small geographic area! That must make for tense neighbor relationships during election years.
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…FREE Books from Scholastic through EVEREADY® Gold®My Profile

  5. That’s awesome! I am rooting for Sylvia 🙂
    Social emotional skills are important; sometimes I think we need to reconsider our ways in regard to our educational system. However education starts at home…

  6. Doug Bates

    Great post, Mia. For me it’s great to see a fellow West Virginian do well. WV has terrible poverty. Part of my childhood was spent in a house without indoor plumbing. Most people running this country have been insulated their entire lives about what being in poverty is like. Like you, I’m rooting for Sylvia.

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