“Any opportunity you have to get involved in will help prepare you for whatever career it is, whether in public service or not,” Kavanagh said.
Kavanagh was appointed the first woman commissioner of the New York City Fire Department in 2022. She oversees the day-to-day operations of 17,000 employees and a $2 billion budget.
Growing up near San Francisco, Kavanagh had a high school writing teacher who encouraged her to attend Whittier College, and she’s glad she took the advice. She was mentored by Political Science Professor Mike McBride, Ph.D., and the late Frederic Bergerson, Ph.D., while earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations. Kavanagh was drawn to that field because she wanted to work in public service.
Kavanagh enjoyed Whittier’s small class sizes and flexible curriculum: She studied in places like Washington, D.C., and Rome. She keeps in touch with the friends she made at Whittier, and her relationships with professors like McBride are the reason she attended a recent alumni event in New York.
Kavanagh earlier served as special assistant to former New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and senior advisor on his mayoral campaign. But transitioning into what Kavanagh calls “small ‘p’ politics” with the fire department has been extremely rewarding.
“I would say it is more meaningful running an agency that actually does real, tangible, life-saving work,” Kavanagh said.
Yet the job is not without hardships. Her department went through four line-of-duty deaths in her first year as commissioner.
“Unfortunately we see tragedy — both our own and that of New York citizens — up close and personal,” Kavanagh said. “Each one of those is very heartbreaking.”
Achievements in department diversity and events like the Second Chance Brunch — where rescuers are reunited with the patients they saved — help keep her positive. Kavanagh is also proud that the department is proactively adjusting to changing landscapes, improving member safety through technology, and advocating to pass increased safety regulations for lithium-ion batteries.
Kavanagh’s advice to Whittier students is to take a direct approach to their studies to make the most of their time in college.
“Take advantage of the opportunity to get your hands on work and see how to actually move the ball forward on projects you’re passionate about,” Kavanagh said.