After 28 years of public service on Capitol Hill, Norma Jane Sabiston returned home to New Orleans five years ago with a treasure trove of experience building collaborative relationships, developing strategy and delivering results. She set up a successful public affairs and political consulting firm and began working with colleagues committed to the recovery and long-term future of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.
Giving back to the community that helped to launch her success and to shape her has always been part of her plan, says Sabiston, who recently took the helm of the UNO International Alumni Association, bringing to the job tenacity and a laser-like focus.
“I think all of us feel that we’re on a trajectory,” Sabiston says of her new alumni board. “We’re really at a place where, from a national and an international standpoint, we’re going to attract the kind of students who want to have the kind of education that UNO provides — a very high quality education along with the intimacy of our campus.”
In some ways, Sabiston has never really left the University. Upon graduation, she immediately put her political science degree into practice, working first as legislative assistant to former U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), then as state and political director for former U.S. Senator John Breaux (D-La.), before joining U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) as chief of staff, a position that Sabiston held for 10 years. While in Washington, Sabiston worked closely with UNO leaders, helping, among other key efforts, to ensure that the University had a say in obtaining needed resources following Hurricane Katrina.
These days, Sabiston continues her public service in various ways. Among her high-profile clients are the City of New Orleans and the coastal Town of Jean Lafitte, where a ring levee system that Sabiston helped to create will soon protect the historic fishing village that serves more than 25 percent of the nation’s fisheries, as well as oil and gas development along the Louisiana coastline.
Sabiston used her rainmaking abilities last year to raise more than $100,000 to help UNO restore the Sandbar at The Cove. When university leaders asked her to consider serving as alumni association president, Sabiston consulted first with UNO alumni, UNO faculty and local leaders, “people that would like this university to be great,” she says. A meeting with UNO President Peter J. Fos helped to establish the alumni association’s objectives.
Fos said that he believes the alumni association should always be a part of mentoring students on campus, Sabiston says. The alumni board plans to launch a mentoring program that pairs alumni from all walks of life with current students. Mentors will share their career paths, goals and experiences.
“You’ve obviously gone on to establish a professional career, and you can share not just professional counsel, but life counsel too,” says Sabiston, who plans to tap into her own network as well as alumni.
Second, the alumni association plans to increase memberships and visibility, Sabiston says. Her recruitment committee has set an aggressive goal of increasing membership and participation by 45 percent within the year.
“We need to demonstrate nationally that the quantity is there and also the quality, and that people are coming back and they’re contributing to the alumni association and figuring out how they can be active,” Sabiston says.
Third, the association will boost scholarship programs at UNO, underwriting five Students4HIGHER scholarships to match five 4-year scholarships established and funded by UNO alumni Barry and Theresa LeBlanc of New Orleans, Sabiston says. The association will also help the University to raise funds for new EdVets scholarships for veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The association will host two major events each year, Sabiston says, including Crawfish Mambo, a new signature spring event designed to bring alumni back to campus.
“Being involved with the alumni association is just a small way of giving back,” Sabiston says. “I really feel like UNO just laid the foundation for me to be able to go to Washington, D.C. and, I think, work for some of the best and brightest members of our delegation,” says the government relations expert, recalling her many years on Capitol Hill. “So I’m having a great time with it.”