Before an unfortunate but fateful vocal cord injury, Hannah Abney was a music major at SMU Meadows School of the Arts.
‘Then, under the guidance of key SMU professors, Abney switched her major to corporate communications and public affairs (CCPA), graduating in 2002. Now Abney serves as vice president of external affairs at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas.
“I came from Milwaukee to SMU for the music program,” Abney said. “When I was a junior, I had a nodule in my vocal cord, and after surgery, my voice never came back. At the same time, I was taking public relations courses. I had two incredible professors who were in the CCPA Division of Meadows, Rita Kirk and Kathy LaTour, who knew what was happening to my music career.”
These two professors saw unexplored talent in Abney and encouraged her to pursue a career in public relations.
“I am really grateful for the kindness they demonstrated,” Abney said. “They gave me options. They saw a talent in me that I didn’t recognize because so much of who I was, was wrapped up in who I was as a singer.”
When Abney was a junior at SMU, President George W. Bush was elected into office. As part of its annual “Hilltop on the Hill” program, SMU Meadows took a small group of students to Washington, D.C., to volunteer for the inaugural committee, and Abney joined the group. She returned to Washington the first semester of her senior year as part of an off-campus study program in 2001. She had no idea this would turn out to be a pivotal time in the White House.
“I started an internship at the White House the week before September 11,” Abney said. “After that day, everything in the world changed. I was struck by the sense of resolve within the White House, which came directly from the president’s example.”
Following the September 11 attack, Abney worked for the Coalition Information Center (CIC) at the White House. This hub corresponded with different offices to provide information about early operations in Afghanistan.
“The men and women I worked for in the CIC were selflessly and passionately committed to executing the president’s agenda, which was to protect the United States and improve the lives of the women and children in Afghanistan,” Abney said. “I learned about the role of communications in public policy from dedicated and compassionate people, and I’m grateful for that.”
After graduating from SMU, Abney returned to Washington. She worked in the vice president’s press office and in the private sector until her husband Allen Abney, fellow SMU grad who also worked at the White House, was accepted into SMU Cox School of Business. They moved to Dallas in 2007, a few years before the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
“I was very fortunate that I had relevant experience and was able to join the Bush Center as it was starting,” Abney said. “I was eager to get back in the policy world.”
In her position at the Bush Center, Abney leads the external relations team, which promotes the organization’s public programming and the domestic and global policy work of the George W. Bush Institute. This work ranges from education reform to its Women’s Initiative, which promotes education, health, and economic opportunity for women around the world.
“It’s fulfilling to work on policy issues that are changing and saving people’s lives,” Abney said.
In her career, Abney says she frequently uses the resilience she learned as a music major and the practical skills she learned in her public relations courses. She credits the demands of both programs for her success.
“I had two totally different experiences at SMU,” Abney said. “The lesson I learned was how to chart a course for my life that would allow the flexibility to go where I needed to go. I learned that I could try anything I put my mind to.”