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Emergency managers in the U.S. are overwhelmingly white men. Susamma Seeley wants to change that.

Seeley shares her career journey and how she overcame feelings of being minimalized and undervalued.
Susamma Seeley own her own consulting company and is a former chairperson of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) USA conference committee.
Susamma Seeley own her own consulting company and is a former chairperson of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) USA conference committee.Courtesy of Susamma Seeley.

Chat with Susamma Seeley for just a few minutes, and you’ll quickly realize that she is up for any challenge. After all, you don’t enter a career in emergency management unless you are dedicated to public service, willing to face catastrophes head on and prepare for disasters, both known and unknown.

I first spoke with Susamma several years ago, when she had just finished five years as the Chairperson of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) USA conference committee. She had an impressive background and was just about to start her Ph.D. program.

I recently caught up with Susamma to ask her about her journey in pursuing a doctoral degree in disaster science and management at the University of Delaware.

Susan Del Percio: You have an incredible resume. You own a consulting company and served as an official international representative for a South Indian NGO with Special Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Prior to working toward your Ph.D., you were the Missouri Chairperson for the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, and the Missouri Statewide Director of Disaster Response for Catholic Charities, USA.

So why go for your doctorate?

Seeley: I was at the height of my career, but one of the biggest challenges I had was, I would walk into a room, filled with predominately middle-aged, white men, and see that they were visibly surprised to see that I was the senior person onsite. You see, there are virtually no women of color in the field of emergency management

Susamma Seeley at Fort Irwin.
Susamma Seeley at Fort Irwin.Michael Martucci

I had enough dismissive looks at work and decided to show “them.” That’s what finally pushed me to get a Ph.D. But even as I began the doctoral process, I encountered the same type of reaction, often feeling minimalized and undervalued.

Del Percio: I would think that your experience as Conference Committee Chairperson of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) would be a tremendous asset.

Seeley: They couldn’t get past my, admittedly abysmal, GRE grades, even though I was accepted into the program. In addition … I can’t help but feel that couldn’t get past the combination of my sex and color.

I met separately with two professors, they each suggested how I could be a better graduate student. One even suggested that I join the school chapter of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM). If either professor had bothered to read my application, they would have seen that I had just served the last five years as the Conference Chairperson of the IAEM.

Del Percio: Speaking of your past, I just learned that you were a medic in the U.S. Army. Tell me about that.

Seeley: I was born in India and my family immigrated to the United States when I was four. My parents were from a traditional and conservative, South Indian family. They were just stunned when I joined the United States Army, where I became a medic.

Seeley served as a medic in the U.S. Army.
Seeley served as a medic in the U.S. Army.Courtesy of Susamma Seeley.

Del Percio: What happened next?

Seeley: After I left the service, I graduated Summa Cum Laude from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and later received a master’s degree in Emergency and Disaster Management (MPA). I am a certified Emergency Manager and completed the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative Executive Education Program at Harvard University – Kennedy School of Government.

Del Percio: Wow. Did you mention this to your professors? Your experience must have had to make up for your GRE scores?

Seeley: Actually, it had the opposite effect. I was told that I could be ‘useful’ to their other students. Not once did they offer meaningful insight or guidance in an effort to help me.

It left me with that same feeling I mentioned earlier, once again eyes were looking at me with that familiar look, “You don’t belong here, but we can use you.”

Del Percio: You have dealt with this type of attitude your entire career, what keeps you moving forward with a drive to do even more?

Seeley: I want to make changes behind the scenes, through policy. You see a lot of machoism and problematic behavior from many men, demanding to be in charge. I believe in creating policies that will lead to having the most capable person in charge, not the loudest.

Furthermore, we need policies that will encourage people to get involved from different backgrounds and experiences, that also means recruiting more women and people of color.”

Del Percio: You mentioned that you are an adjunct professor and teach leadership. I am a distinguished lecturer at Emerson College, and it is incredibly rewarding, what has been your experience?

Seeley: I love it! It’s what keeps me excited about the future.

Having a role in teaching the core principles of leadership to college students is incredible and rewarding. In addition, being a teacher of color allows me to influence how the students view women and people who look like me. In some small way, it allows me to have an impact on the future, and perhaps even set an example for young, immigrant women. I help make space for all to speak and share their perspectives. That it is important to dream big, and be prepared to succeed. I never imagined the impact teaching would have on me.