Alumna Terri McCullough, chief of staff to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will make a virtual campus visit for Alumni Week

Terri McCullough in front of a window overlooking a cityscape
Terri McCullough says that lessons from her education at UC Santa Cruz still stick with her today. "Santa Cruz is the place where I learned about building coalitions and building communities," she said.

This year’s Alumni Week will feature a virtual fireside chat with Terri McCullough, an Oakes '91 politics alumna who is now chief of staff to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Throughout her career, McCullough has been an advocate for women’s leadership at the highest levels. She’ll join Professor Chris Benner, director of the UC Santa Cruz Institute for Social Transformation, for a conversation on April 24th, from 5:30–7 p.m. 

McCullough will also be presented with the Social Sciences Distinguished Alumni Award. This event will be held in memory of Gabe Zimmerman (Stevenson ‘02, sociology). Registration is free and open to the public. 

Previously, McCullough connected with the UC Santa Cruz news team to discuss her career, sources of inspiration, and Banana Slug pride. 

A calling for public service

Terri McCullough vividly remembers the moment she knew she had to change careers.

"I was working for a software company in Santa Cruz, and we were all listening to the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings," she said, referring to Anita Hill's galvanizing 1991 testimony that the Supreme Court nominee had sexually harassed her years earlier. "I was stunned that no one on the committee was listening to a woman as intelligent, respected, brave—as courageous—as Professor Anita Hill."

McCullough recalls the make-up of the Senate committee. "I felt so strongly that I wanted to find a way to ensure there were a lot of different faces at those seats of power. It was a revelatory moment."

That's when McCullough dedicated herself to changing the system by getting more women at the table. Over her career, she has worked for and with some of the most influential women in the country, including Hillary Clinton, Cecile Richards, Tory Burch, and Anna Deavere Smith. 

But it all began with California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, with whom she interned in 1991. She moved up to serve as a legislative assistant in Pelosi's Washington D.C. office, then was an adviser in her outreach office, and finally ran Pelosi's personal office until 2011. "I knew I wanted to work for a woman in Congress," said McCullough. "She has been amazing from the time I met her."

Pelosi, now Speaker of the House of Representatives, reached out to McCullough to return to the Hill as chief of staff, making McCullough the first woman to serve in that role in a paid, full-time capacity. Her first day on the job was March 25, 2019. No two days since have been the same.

"There's always something different," said McCullough, 50. "I'm not sitting at a desk or a computer much. There's a lot of people asking questions and connecting people, whether I'm helping solve small problems or solving something big." 

Women’s leadership in the nation’s capital

The fast pace isn't new for McCullough, who says she feels very fortunate to have worked for so many "talented, driven, powerful women."

McCullough worked directly with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton as CEO of No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project, a gender-equity program of the Clinton Foundation. Her career includes stints as the executive director of the Tory Burch Foundation, which supports women entrepreneurs around the world, and she worked with Anna Deavere Smith's Institute on Arts and Civic Dialogue at New York University. She considers former Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards a family friend.

"I wish I were not that unusual," she said of her professional affiliation with women leaders. "I wish it weren't so extraordinary that just about every experience I've had has been working for women. I don't know anything else." 

The opportunity to support Pelosi—McCullough succeeds Daniel Weiss (Rachel Carson College '85, sociology), another UC Santa Cruz alum and longtime legislative staffer, who led Pelosi's team during the congresswoman's effort to win back the House in November 2018—necessitated her family's move from New York City back to the nation's capital. She and her husband, political consultant Howard Wolfson, have a daughter and son.

"It's always been important for me to be a part of making systemic change, particularly for women and families," said McCullough. "We are at such a critical moment now to create change for people who have not been represented. People with real economic need. People who need better health care. People who need a bigger paycheck."

Confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 were a bruising reminder that more change is needed. "We've made progress, but not enough," she said. "I keep that in mind every day."

Since then, McCullough has felt energized by seeing record numbers of women elected to Congress. There’s also increasing representation in other powerful public offices, like Kamala Harris’s election as Vice President. 

"What makes this moment so thrilling is the number of women fighting for systemic and cultural change," she said. "We are on the cusp of making real change. The power of unity, of us working together, is mesmerizing to consider."

An awakening at UC Santa Cruz

As the daughter of a letter carrier whose pension provided vital family support, and as a first-generation college graduate who received federal financial aid, McCullough has a keen appreciation for the role of government in people's everyday lives. She also has legions of admirers, including fellow Banana Slug Alex Clemens (Porter '89, international politics), who runs a strategic communications firm in San Francisco. 

Clemens credits McCullough with mentoring a generation of political staffers in the Bay Area and Washington, D.C., imbuing in them the ability to anticipate, plan, organize, and know the answers to questions before they are asked. 

"Terri's work to elevate women is legendary," he said. "She's been the behind-the-scenes catalyst that has led to headlines, policy shifts, and actual societal change.”

McCullough chose UC Santa Cruz because she felt "an alignment with the philosophy and ethos of the university." 

"I will never be able to explain the incredible impact my experience at Oakes had on me. To meet so many different people from so many life experiences was an awakening," said McCullough, who was raised in San Rafael. 

The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake brought the Oakes community together under trying circumstances. McCullough, a neighborhood assistant that year, recalled the responsibility she felt for her fellow students.

"We slept on the big grassy field behind Oakes that night, because we were all so worried about aftershocks. We were so afraid," she said. "It forged a bond with so many of us. We all relied on each other so deeply."

McCullough took a range of classes and dabbled in acting before she discovered the Politics Department. "Dan Wirls's U.S. politics class was the jumping off point for me," she recalled. "He taught in a really insightful way." Then, laughing, she added: "Of course, there's academic exposure, and the actual exposure here in Washington, and the one never really prepares you for the other."

Still, her years on campus made more than lasting memories.

"Santa Cruz is the place where I learned about building coalitions and building communities," she said. "That is something I'll never forget. The power of building community has informed everything."