Hill Climbers: With an Illinois Link, Staffer Comes Home

Posted April 23, 2010 at 5:50pm

It would be wrong to assume that Sarah Baldauf always goes with the flow. Even though she said her life has been one “alignment” after another — reaching a zenith when she recently became communications director for Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) — she strikes a balance between self-reflection and a come-what-may attitude.

“I definitely have that part of me that questions and sometimes resists things,” said Baldauf, 33. “However, I think, looking back, it seems like if you can be smart enough and astute enough to recognize when real and good opportunities are presenting themselves, then you have to just trust it. … Sometimes you just have to trust that opportunities present themselves for a reason.”

The stars began aligning for Baldauf years ago, simply because of her hometown: Evanston, Ill. She not only hails from Schakowsky’s district, but the two also share the same hometown.

“She would always come back to the Fourth of July parade on Central Street in Evanston,” Baldauf said. “It’s this great city tradition, and she’d always be in the parade. … She would pass out fans that say, “I’m a Jan Fan.” I have many years where I waved my Jan Fan along with my family.”

Baldauf’s first professional alignment came after she graduated from Boston University, where she earned a degree in psychology in 1998. After responding to an advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle, she became the sixth hire with the dot-com startup OpenTable.

The job proved to be an “absolute blast,” and Baldauf became the jack-of-all-trades, doing everything from installing digital subscriber lines to ordering office decks.

Dot-coms “were trying to be the antithesis of corporate America, and they were, but there were also a lot of ridiculous ideas out there because of all the venture capital money for anything that was dot-com,” Baldauf said. “I remember going to these launch parties with all these dot-coms thinking, ‘Well, how is that going to last? How are you going to make money?'”

Then, in 2001, the economy started to falter and the layoffs came. After surviving the first few rounds of terminations, Baldauf was finally let go.

Baldauf opted for a two-month walkabout in New Zealand and Australia, courtesy of the frequent flyer miles that she racked up on her credit card with company purchases.

“Not only did OpenTable give me the full dot-com experience, they also gave me a free ticket to New Zealand and back,” said Baldauf, who is now able to look back and laugh.

[IMGCAP(2)]Baldauf then headed to the East Coast for work in Nantucket, Mass., where she sold women’s clothing. While there, she finally began priming her next long-term move.

“I had kind of tapped into this explorer adventurer side of myself, and then a yearning for the more intellectual part of me to be served came,” she said. “Then it became, ‘OK, what do I go back to school for?'”

That’s when another alignment happened. For years, Baldauf lived in the shadow of Northwestern University in Evanston. She ended up homing in on the university’s Medill School of Journalism — it was the only graduate program that she applied for.

After earning a master’s degree in journalism in 2005 and a quick post-grad trip to Brazil, Baldauf held her first journalism gig as an intern at Men’s Health Magazine in “the middle of nowhere” Pennsylvania.

“I wanted to get a health background,” she said. “I was not interested in the tone of Men’s Health Magazine. I learned a ton there. I learned how to read medical articles.”

After biding her time for six months, Baldauf got her first big break as a health care and medical reporter with the U.S. News and World Report, a job she held for four years until her recent move to Capitol Hill. Baldauf covered a range of health care topics, including the most recent reform effort.

“I ended up interviewing doctors a lot, but I also interviewed people and families,” she said. “That’s two very different angles coming at the same experience. The patient and the patient’s family members are no less valuable in that experience of being treated for a disease or having surgery. Getting the perspective of different individuals on a common experience is, for whatever reason, very energizing and fulfilling to me.”

As for her latest alignment, Baldauf said she actually wasn’t looking to quit the journalism industry or switch jobs. Nevertheless, Schakowsky “was someone that I always admired on the issues,” Baldauf said. “She’s a true progressive Democrat, and the Evanston community is very much in line with that, with those ideals and those values. That to me was a huge draw.”

In terms of the day-to-day differences between journalism and a legislative office, Baldauf said Capitol Hill feels oddly familiar. “There’s a real degree of uncertainty in journalism right now, and I can’t say that didn’t feel that a little bit as well,” Baldauf said. “However, I really like the fundamentals of journalism: writing, reporting, asking questions, facilitating communication, telling a narrative, bringing complex ideas down to earth so that people can comprehend them. I think that’s what drew me to this position and also to the Hill. A lot of complex ideas are being thrown around here all day long, but the stuff is really important to real people.”

In May, Baldauf plans on heading back to her old stomping grounds — the 9th Congressional district of Illinois — with her new boss.

“My whole family was just in town visiting, and I was saying, “Oh I’m coming back to the district,,” Baldauf said. “They were like, ‘What do you mean? You don’t call it home anymore, it’s now the district?'”

Outside of that trip back home, the world traveler — who enjoys travelling on the cheap and last September managed to snag a $326 round-trip flight to Russia — plans, in the near future at least, on sticking to more local jaunts with her husband, Chris.

Baldauf also stays busy outside of work as a Medill Mentor, giving guidance to Medill graduate students in D.C. She also volunteers with the Reading Connection, a reading advocacy organization for underserved children living in temporary housing.

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