November 9, 2018 10:44:22 AM
As recently as four years ago, Ohio was just a place on a map and politics wasn't even on the radar for Allison Russo.
But on Tuesday, Russo was elected to represent Ohio's 24th District in the statehouse, winning her first political campaign as a Democrat in her suburban Columbus, Ohio district.
Russo credits her career working in public health policy for inspiring her to run for office, but her preparation for that role began far earlier, stretching back more than 20 years to the training she received in the "other" Columbus.
More specifically, it was her four years as a student at Mississippi University for Women that laid the groundwork for her new job in politics.
"My time (at The W) really provided so many foundations for me," said Russo, who was known on campus by her maiden name, Allison Davis. "It taught me to be a critical thinker, to use my voice. The W really empowered me there. Being surrounded by so many women, I think so many of us, we learned to be engaged and to have a voice."
Russo said she was inspired by being exposed to strong women leaders, both on campus and through guest speakers and lecturers The W regularly hosted.
"Clyda Rent was the president when I was there," said Russo, who graduated in 1998. "I worked in her office as a student worker and she was really the first woman in a position of authority that I was exposed to. She was a big influence for so many of us. She was always bringing in female leaders to provide opportunities for students to have conversations with them. It gave some of us another way of looking at what women could do."
Rising from humble beginnings
Davis grew up poor. Her single mom struggled to provide for her and sister. With only a high school education, her mother worked a series of jobs - even briefly in construction.
"It wasn't easy," Russo said. "We had to move a lot. My mother wouldn't be able to pay the rent, so we would have to stay with our grandmother, who was a safety net for us."
Her mother recognized the way out of poverty was through education and instilled that belief into her young daughters.
Russo, the eldest sibling, took it to heart. She was a standout student at Wesson Attendance Center in Copiah County, earning a full scholarship to The W.
"What poverty taught me was resilience," Russo said. "You have to keep fighting, and the way you do that is through education. It also taught me empathy. Poverty isn't a choice. It's a circumstance."
After graduating from The W with a degree in microbiology, Russo earned her master's in epidemiology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, then her doctorate in health policy at George Washington University.
She worked in the public health policy in the D.C. area until 2014, when they moved to Ohio as her husband, Brian, who had served 17 years in the US Air Force attended law school in Ohio. The Russos have three children, ages 11, 9 and 2.
Russo said it was her experience in public health policy that propelled her into politics.
"Ohio was one of the first states to expand Medicaid and I knew from my work in the field how important that is," she said. "Even though it has been extremely successful here in Ohio, there was talk here about the next administration getting rid of it. I sort of looked around. Very few people have knowledge of health policy, which is something I've been working on all my career. I felt like I had to get involved."
Staying in touch
Russo gained 58 percent of the vote to defeat her Republican opponent for the open seat in the Legislature. As the results came in Tuesday, Russo said she was on the phone with many of her old friends from The W.
"I've built some lifelong friends at The W," she said. "So many of my core group of friends have been involved in the campaign from afar. They were all on the phone with me Tuesday night."
Included in that circle is MUW Professor Bridget Smith Pieschel.
"She was one of my favorites," Russo said. "She taught me honors English."
Pieschel said she makes an effort to keep up with all her former students, primarily through social media. Russo is one of those former students who has always stood out, she said.
"She was a combination of all the things that make a memorable college student," Pieschel said. "She was very active on campus. She was a top scholar and she was particularly energetic. I'm sure everybody who was here when she was remembers her. It doesn't seem like she has changed much. Even then, she was interested in policies that had to do with health care. So, no, I'm not surprised at all that she would do this."
Although it's been 20 years since she left The W, those memories are warm, the lessons she learned still relevant.
"The W was a big part of my life," Russo said. "It really did help shape the person I am today."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.
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