Alumni Spotlight: Jennifer Hrdlicka, Class I

Jennifer Hrdlicka sat down for her alumni spotlight interview and wondered aloud why she, five years removed from her Florida Gubernatorial Fellowship, would be the subject of such attention.

Under the spotlight is not where Jennifer prefers to stand. She notes that she’d rather be “the person behind the person.” Unlike a number of Florida Fellows, this member of the inaugural class – what we now call Class I – doesn’t have political aspirations. She is a lawyer who has never wanted to be a practicing attorney. She doesn’t consider herself a typical Florida Fellow at all.

Which, of course, just makes her a perfect spotlight subject, another example that there’s no such thing as the typical Florida Fellow. There’s also the fact that she’s continuing her dedication to public service, which has always been her passion.

Over a light dinner at Black Bean Cuban Cafe in Tallahassee, Jennifer talked about her work day as a lawyer for the Florida Senate’s Commerce Committee. It had been a busy day – the first of the state’s 2010 Legislative Session – and she was unwinding and looking forward to that night’s new episode of Lost.

Jennifer’s official job title is simply “lawyer.” That’s ironic for someone who only attended law school in the first place (she graduated with honors from Florida State in 2006, and passed the Bar that year) to understand how the process worked so she could help people in a governmental capacity.

Working in public service, she said, is “what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s about making a difference and having a good impact on somebody’s life. Some people do the charity route. I’ve always believed in the idea that this is your government and, you know, the ‘you have a civic duty’ sort of thing. The only reason I went to law school was to get a background on these subjects.

And what got her here? Well, there were stops in a lot of places.

But let’s start with the name, since she’s had to answer the question a million times and we might as well make it 1,000,001. Isn’t there a critical vowel missing in “Hrdlicka?” Actually, no.

The name is Bohemian – as in the Kingdom of Bohemia, which once ruled over what is now the Czech Republic, and Czech is her parental heritage. The “R” in “Hrdlicka” equates to an “E.” (But you pronounce the “Hrd” part just like it looks, “herd.”)

On her mother’s side, Jennifer is a collateral descendant of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence. Her parents, now retired, live a few hours west in Milton, Fla.

Jennifer has one brother, Michael. He’s seven years younger, but the siblings are close, figuratively and (until recently) geographically. Both lived in Tallahassee while Michael got his bachelor’s degree from Florida State. He’s now attending law school at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Even if Jennifer was interested in running for office, the highest one in the land – U.S. President – wouldn’t be open to her anyway, at least under the current rules. Though she was born to American parents and has no Mexican heritage, Jennifer was born south of the border, in Chihuahua. That’s been a city (and state) in Mexico long before it was a celebrity purse dog or a Taco Bell mascot.

She was born in Chihuahua because her father worked for General Electric, a position that required the family to move every few years (Jennifer’s mother taught grammar school). Much like an Army brat, Jennifer was regularly uprooted. When she was five, her family moved to El Paso, Tex., where Jennifer became a naturalized American citizen.

And thus began what we’ll call the Jennifer Hrdlicka U.S. Tour. The family spent two years in El Paso, where Michael was born, then it was on to Roanoke, Virginia, where Jennifer continued school through eighth grade. Ninth through 11th was spent in Fort Wayne, Ind., and her senior year of high school was in Parkersburg, W. Va. You’d think it would be awful to be uprooted every few years, but Jennifer largely enjoyed the experience.

“When you actually move you don’t like it, but as long as you have family you can always make friends,” she said. In her teenage years, the growing popularity of email and instant messaging – that is, as Jennifer joked, when “Al Gore invented the Internet” – helped her stay connected over long distances.

“At the time you hate it, but you get over it,” she said of the relocations. “I’m really glad we moved around a lot and that I’ve been around different places. I’ve gotten to see and do so many things.”

In fact, how Jennifer handled the constant traveling speaks to what she considers her strongest quality: adaptability. Like a utility player on a baseball team, she can use her many skills to accomplish pretty much whatever you need to get done.

You can see that in her resume regarding her professional positions – throughout her schooling, she interned or worked part-time in numerous capacities – but also in other roles.

She’s certainly open to diverse influences and inspirations. In an essay Jennifer wrote years ago about goals and inspirations, she was as comfortable quoting Ayn Rand (“Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values”) as Ann Landers (“Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work, and that is why most people don’t recognize them”).

Jennifer got her bachelor’s degree from West Virginia University, graduating Magna Cum Laude with majors in political science and economics, a 3.76 GPA overall and a 4.0 in her majors. Then the Mountaineer came to Tallahassee in 2003 for law school and fell in love with Florida.

Jennifer was a Florida Fellow during her second year of law school. She remembers the experience fondly, especially meetings with state leaders and agency heads: “I remember things people said to us to this day.”

One quote she’s held onto in particular came from Paul Mitchell, who was Chief of Staff to the state’s Chief Financial Officer at the time, Tom Gallagher. Mitchell told the Fellows, “You don’t learn from success. You really learn from failure.”

Jennifer said she took a lot from the Fellowship: “Anybody would enjoy it, no matter what you’re studying,” she said. “Because state government has an impact on everything you’re interested in. And there’s a (Fellowship job) placement that fits that. Whether it’s education, or health… even if you were an art student. I don’t think you’d find anybody who wouldn’t benefit from it.”

After law school, Jennifer went to work for the state Office of Financial Regulation as an assistant general counsel, writing informal legal opinions, doing research and later working as a registered lobbyist.

She moved on to the Commerce Committee position in February 2009. There, she assists Senators and private citizens with legal questions, analyzes proposed bills and assists with the drafting of bills as needed.

For someone fascinated with the ways legislation can help people’s lives, you couldn’t ask to be in a better position. For now, at least.

“I always thought I wanted to work in the White House, but I guess that’s true of anyone who wants to be involved in politics,” Jennifer said. “The important thing is to make a difference. I really believe most people who go into politics really do want to do the right thing. Even if we all disagree on what the right thing is.” But those are thoughts for the future. For the moment, Jennifer is just enjoying the Legislative Session.

“I really like this part,” she said. “It’s busy, but you really feel like you’re having an impact on something. The goal is to help somebody, and this is the point where you actually make an impact on somebody’s life.”

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