Due to pandemic precautions, Alicia Molt-West '09 takes her oath of office, administered virtually by President Joe Biden on Inauguration Day 2021, at home with her twin daughters, Charlotte and Grace, on her lap
Holy Cross longtime friends and roommates, Alicia Molt-West '09 and Jen Fraser '09, in their days on The Hill (left) and in 2019 (right).
Molt-West and her late father on her wedding day
Alicia Molt-West with President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden
Whenever Alicia Molt-West ’09 returned home for the holidays after graduating from Holy Cross, she’d make a breakfast or lunch date with her former history professor and friend, Stephanie Yuhl.
Yuhl remembers one particular visit in detail. It was 2013, and she was undergoing treatment for cancer: “I was in chemo; I had metastatic breast cancer. I was totally bald — no hair, no eyebrows. I was immunosuppressed. I was a wreck — so very sick — but I really wanted to see her.”
During their lunch date, Molt-West presented Yuhl with a gift, a handsome journal. “It’s gonna make me cry to talk about it,” Yuhl says. “Alicia had contacted the classmates she’d met in a first-year class I’d taught. She’d told them I was sick. I don’t know how she found out.”
In the book were 15 letters to Yuhl from Alicia and her classmates: “These beautiful letters about the remarkable memories the students had in our time together,” Yuhl recalls. “And it just made me think: I can do this again. I can survive this cancer, and I can be a teacher again to kids like these.”
That journal manifested and affirmed what Yuhl had often observed in her student: a depth of care, concern and compassion for others. Molt-West saw that class, that experience they’d shared, as a gift, Yuhl says. “And it gave me a lot of hope at a time that was really difficult for me. I almost died. Twice. It gave me hope in a time I was without hope.”
That’s the thing to know about Alicia Molt-West: She pays attention, Yuhl says. “Alicia shows up, she’s present. And she’s working as hard if not harder than anyone else to do what’s right.”
Such a solid work ethic should serve Molt-West well in her new job: special assistant to President Joe Biden and House legislative affairs liaison.
“I can see her being not only accessible and absolutely expert in the areas she’s tasked with, but also a person who listens well and, so, can bring people together to talk through difficult questions or disagreements. And that is something that we absolutely need right now in Washington,” Yuhl says. “And Alicia in this position gives me hope. I have a lot of hope in her.”
Holy Cross friends and roommates, Alicia Molt-West ’09 and Jen Fraser ’09, in their days on The Hill (left) and in 2019 (right).
A native of Northbridge, Massachusetts, Molt-West entered Holy Cross with the intention of becoming an educator. Since high school, she’d had a deep interest in social justice and chose to major in history and the multidisciplinary program gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. In her roommate Jennifer Fraser ’09, Molt-West found a lifelong friend who shared her interest in justice — and most everything else. In their dorm room in Hanselman, the two created a whiteboard listing their many mutual interests: social justice holding the top spot. Lower on the list: a deep and abiding love for celebrating holidays and Buffalo wings, Fraser says with a grin. Both were a part of the First-Year Program, a precursor of the Montserrat Program.
“It was an opt-in program and had the reputation of being for nerds, but we loved it,” Fraser says. “I remember getting the letter in the mail telling me who my roommate was, and Alicia and I connecting on Facebook and Myspace. I remember Move-In Day, walking into 318 Hanselman and meeting her; she hugged me right away and we were best friends from the second we met. We really clicked over social justice. We had both been involved in service work in high school and wanting to better learn how to make a difference in the world was one of the things we bonded over.” Fraser and Molt-West were roommates throughout their years at Holy Cross and for seven years after in Washington, D.C.
While at Holy Cross, Molt-West was deeply involved in Student Programs for Urban Development (SPUD) and the College Democrats. A varsity athlete, she played golf for her father, the late Bob Molt, the longest-serving coach in College history, who retired after 41 years of coaching both the men’s and women’s golf teams, the latter from 2000-2013. In a 2017 interview with Holy Cross Magazine, Molt said his two proudest moments were receiving the prestigious Gordon McCullough Award from his New England Intercollegiate Golf Association peers in 2006 and coaching his daughter at the 2009 Big South Championship in Charleston, South Carolina.
Molt-West and her late father, longtime Holy Cross golf coach Bob Molt.
Some of the most important lessons Molt-West learned from her dad’s coaching have direct application to politics, she says: “It’s actually shockingly easy to cheat in the game of golf. You can throw down another ball when no one is looking, for instance, but you don’t because, as my dad would say, golf is a game of integrity and about doing what’s right, regardless of who is looking or how the score ends up. Golf’s more about the confidence that comes with knowing you’ve done the right thing, regardless of the outcome.”
Molt-West’s junior year marked her official entry into politics in an internship that had her working for a rising star in the Democratic Party. “I was in the Teacher Education Program for the first two years of college,” she says. “In 2007, Professor Stephanie Yuhl encouraged me to apply for the Washington Semester Program. I would not be in my current vocation if not for Stephanie’s commitment to her students’ success. She always showed how much she cared about my growth. When people ask me how I got into politics, I tell them it started with Stephanie’s encouragement and that internship.”
“That internship” happened to be in the office of then-junior Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. “I just have to thank my lucky stars. I’m not from Illinois; I didn’t have special connections,” Molt-West says. “I had seen his speech at the DNC years before and thought highly of him, and that I’d love the opportunity to work for him.”
That experience changed her idea of what she might become, Molt-West says: “Just being able to walk to work every day, going into the Capitol and getting to see how everything gets done — it was just so meaningful to me. And it showed me that I could get involved in our government. I could have a place in all of this.”
Bookending the D.C. internship, and also pivotal in Molt-West’s academic and professional careers, were two immersion trips, one to El Salvador in 2006 and another to Kenya in 2009, both sponsored by the Office of the College Chaplains. The El Salvador trip was funded by an award given to Marybeth Kearns-Barrett ’84, chaplain and office director. Kearns-Barrett arranged to take Molt-West and a handful of other SPUD leaders to El Salvador to learn about how the Jesuits at the University of Central America understood the role of a university and scholarship as a social force. Their commitment to a faith that does justice led to the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter by members of the Salvadoran Army on the grounds of the Jesuit University of Central America. The elite battalion had orders to kill Rev. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., an outspoken critic of the Salvadoran military. Molt-West impressed Kearns-Barrett with her attentiveness.
“Watching her interact with the people there and her humility, her real interest in hearing people’s stories, wanting to understand how people lived and what their struggles were, it all just really seemed to make a big impression on her,” Kearns-Barrett says. “She was listening for the ways structural inequities were impacting people’s lives. I think Alicia was always thinking about the bigger picture: Why is this happening, and how did we get this way?”
Molt-West says she believes that such immersion in the culture, specifically in its people’s stories, is how to begin to affect systemic change: “You have to see, hear and learn things firsthand from those who are being affected by policies. Those experiences were very formative in my understanding of what it means to stand in solidarity with others while also providing a global context for what it means to create a just world.
“In both El Salvador and Kenya, you’re definitely experiencing great poverty, extreme poverty,” she says. “In Kenya, I believe we visited one of the largest slums on the entire continent, and to experience that makes you think of your own privilege while also prompting you to question what different systems are in place that are hurting people. And asking some of those broader questions helps lead you in the direction of figuring out what it is within a system that you’d like to affect.”
After graduation, Molt-West took a job as an advocate for victims of domestic violence in the D.C. courts. She then worked for U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin for two years before taking a legislative aide position on the staff of Worcester’s congressman, U.S. Rep. James McGovern, for whom she had campaigned as a student. Molt-West worked for McGovern for two-and-a-half years before taking a position with U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin.
In describing Molt-West, McGovern uses words like “extraordinary,” “brilliant” and “spectacular.” “Working on Capitol Hill, it’s not just about having an encyclopedic memory about every issue, but also being able to work well with other people and be responsive to other people,” McGovern says. “One of the issues she worked on — she initiated it — was helping to come up with the cost of training service dogs for veterans who were suffering from brain trauma injuries and dealing with post-traumatic stress. It’s expensive to train a service dog, and we knew there was a great need.
“So we established this grant program with the Department of Defense to help subsidize the cost of training these dogs,” he continues. “Alicia started that effort and now we have a grant program that is up and running, and is providing service dogs to countless veterans all over the country. Alicia is a great representative of the Jesuit values Holy Cross teaches.”
Alicia Molt-West with President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden.
As a part of President Biden’s legislative affairs team, Molt-West works to pass the president’s agenda in Congress. As House legislative affairs liaison, her focus is on issues of education and labor, science, space and technology. She began her job in November 2020 while also wrapping up her duties as chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan of Massachusetts, a position she’d held since 2019.
It’s a busy life on the job and at home — she and her husband, Stephen, are parents to 1-year-old twins, Charlotte and Grace — but the rewards are great and the experiences, singular, Molt-West says. While not at Biden’s inauguration ceremony — she was at the Capitol — Molt-West says she was able to appreciate the magnitude of the day. “On Inauguration Day, I made a very intentional effort to be present, to be focused on President Biden’s words, to truly listen to those inspiring words pertaining to unity and the president’s vision for our country, and I just let it soak in,” she says. “I truly feel I’ve found a vocation in my work.”
Of the nation’s second Catholic president, Molt-West says she is inspired by Biden’s kindheartedness, decency and sincerity in urging the country to work toward unity: “President Biden means what he says when he says he wants to find common ground, and it’s very much a part of what I do day to day: reaching out to folks with different viewpoints than President Biden’s own and my own, to see how we can find that unity, that common ground.
“People have to be first in all that we do, and politics doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game where if I win, you lose,” she continues. “We can have different viewpoints. We can both believe we’re doing something for the good of the country, but we have different ways of arriving at it.”
As for her own strategy in moving the needle toward unity, Molt-West reiterates the object lessons her father taught her years earlier on the links: “In politics, all you have is your word and your integrity. I just come back to the idea that you have to be good in all you do. It’s probably rooted in the Jesuit tradition of social justice.”
Asked to share the sort of classic story about her friend that only an insider would know, Fraser looks thoughtful and takes a moment: “Alicia is a really magical combination of somebody who is a confident leader — efficient, strong and a go-getter — coupled with a deep sense of empathy. She has a beautiful balance of both.
“I have this memory of being at the bottom of Mount St. James where that little café, Culpeppers, is, and we were driving by there, and we saw an elderly man,” she remembers. “It was raining, and he was probably cold, and he was just standing there, and we were both, like, ‘What should we do?’ And Alicia pulled over and gave him the umbrella she had in her car. It’s a small example of who she is. She walks the walk, and she is in this work because she genuinely feels for people.
“She wants to make sure that all people are treated fairly and with compassion, that no one is left behind.”
Written by Marybeth Reilly-McGreen ’89 for the Spring 2021 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
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