Now, as she helps plan this year’s Jubilee reunion weekend, she wants her fellow alumni to reconnect with their own college memories—and how their Fordham experiences have fueled their lives and careers.
“I had a world-class education, and I took every bit of advantage of it … but I also loved that I was in New York City,” said Sullivan, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Hogan Lovells, a global law firm. “I had organized my life so that I had no classes on Friday, and I would walk up to the D train, and I would go down to Fifth Avenue and window shop in stores that I couldn’t begin to afford.”
Sullivan is one of 15 alumni serving on the Class of 1973 planning committee, a dedicated group of volunteers helping to plan engagement events and reach out to fellow classmates leading up to the reunion celebration, from June 2 to 4. Though class years ending in 3 and 8 will be celebrated this year, all Rose Hill alumni are welcome.
As vice chair of the University’s Board of Trustees, Sullivan gets back to campus fairly often, but she said it’s not quite the same as getting to reunite with her fellow Rams.
“I am really excited at the prospect of seeing people who I have not seen in many cases since graduation,” she said, “and in some cases just rarely because I’m not in New York and a lot of my friends from Fordham stayed in the New York area.”
Breaking Ground—and Glass Ceilings
The women of Thomas More College—Fordham’s undergraduate school for women from 1964 to 1974—are known for being trailblazers in various fields, and Sullivan is certainly no exception. She’s one of the top energy lawyers in the country, having served as general counsel for the U.S. Department of Energy in the Clinton administration and as the department’s deputy general counsel for environment and nuclear programs.
Both of Sullivan’s parents—Eileen Ahern Sullivan, UGE ’42, LAW ’46, and Francis J. Sullivan, LAW ’34—were Fordham graduates, and they showed her firsthand the value of public service, particularly through their involvement with the fair housing movement. “We didn’t talk about ‘men and women for others’ then,” she said at a Presidential Welcome Reception she hosted with her husband, Larry Petro, at her firm’s offices in Washington, D.C. “That’s just the life they lived. And what they taught me.”
That sentiment fuels her efforts to combat climate change, both personally and professionally: She provided critical legal support for the world’s first deep geologic disposal facility for radioactive waste, for example, and negotiated the first agreements with electric utilities on voluntarily reducing greenhouse gas emissions. At Fordham’s 2015 Commencement, the University bestowed an honorary doctorate on her in recognition of “her exceptional and groundbreaking leadership in energy law.”
She’s passionate about giving back, as well. She’s a member of Fordham’s Doty Loyalty Giving Society and the 1841 Society, and has created and supported a number of endowed scholarships funds, including the Eileen Sullivan & Francis J. Sullivan Endowed Scholarship (named in honor of her parents), the Thomas More College Endowed Scholarship Fund, and the Fordham Founder’s Undergraduate Scholarship Fund.
Sullivan also has supported the Global Outreach program, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
‘A Very Fordham Thing’
Though she was a self-described “nerd” and serious student who focused her studies on metaphysics, Russian literature, and economics, she was among the student protesters who “took over” the University’s administration building during the Vietnam War. She described the early 1970s as an “era of protest” but added that their particular occupation was a very “Fordham experience,” meaning it was more orderly than most.
“I will never forget this guy in the business school had a can of Pledge,” she said, “and as we were leaving the building, he was polishing the table. We were very respectful of the space. It was totally Fordham, you know.”
Fordham Five (Plus One)
What are you most passionate about?
I am passionate about climate change. We are frying the planet, and there is too little urgency about the need to change our behavior. It is on all of us to do what we can to turn things around: Insist on carbon-free power from your local utility—it is available if you ask—take public transportation, don’t drink water that has traveled on the road (i.e., bottled water), “reduce, reuse, recycle” in every part of life, don’t order anything for home delivery if you can pick it up the next time you are out running multiple errands, and never order just one thing for home delivery. The traffic jam of delivery trucks in my neighborhood drives me crazy because of the horrific carbon footprint it represents. There are promising big solutions out there, but the little stuff that we can control matters more than we acknowledge.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I got was probably in first grade, when I told my mother school was too hard. She told me I could do it if I tried. Effort is not everything, but in my life, it has counted for a lot.
What’s your favorite place in New York City? In the world?
In New York City, my favorite place is the Brooklyn Bridge, on foot. You can see the skyline of New York and the Statue of Liberty, which cannot help but inspire. At the same time, you can look at the river and New York Harbor and imagine New York before it was New York, when nature was all around. I think it is a magical walk.
The world has so many spectacularly beautiful and exciting places. Picking one favorite is hard. In the end, I come down to Antarctica. It is spectacularly beautiful and different from everywhere else I have been on the planet. And it is where I learned that penguins operate their own, very organized daycare centers. It was amazing to see some adult penguins stay behind with the babies who cannot yet swim while others went out and got food and brought it back for the babies and the daycare workers. For some reason, that made more of an impression on me than almost anything else I have seen in my travels.
Name a book that has had a lasting influence on you.
I confess that I am not as much of a reader as I wish I were or should be. Sitting quietly is not my strong suit. However, a couple of years ago, I picked up Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman from one of those little neighborhood library boxes. I loved it so much I read it cover to cover twice in short succession. It was a tale of overcoming incredibly challenging personal circumstances with the help of acts of kindness of others. Notwithstanding the trauma underlying her story, I found it a very hopeful story.
Who is the Fordham grad or professor you admire most?
I was a philosophy major when Fordham was home to a pantheon of philosophy giants: Norris Clark, S.J., Robert O’Connell, S.J., and Quentin Lauer, S.J., to name a few. I cannot pick one among them. I loved the education I got as a philosophy major and can remember 50 years later some of the insights I took away from their classes.
What are you optimistic about?
In my family, I am often referred to as Pollyanna, which has become a noun that means “an excessively cheerful or optimistic person.” Does that mean I am optimistic about everything? I think it really means I am good at forgetting the bad stuff. But I guess I am optimistic that we can make a difference in this world, which has many things to be pessimistic about, if we try.