Bleeding pink and green

| June 13, 2014

Debra Elkins ’93 has built an impressive career since graduating from Sweet Briar more than 20 years ago.

Growing up a “faculty brat” in Amherst County near the picturesque campus, Elkins majored in mathematical physics, graduated summa cum laude, earned her M.S. and Ph.D. from Texas A&M University and is now the director of risk and capability analytics in the Office of Policy/Strategy, Planning, Analysis and Risk (SPAR) at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C.

Among other responsibilities, her team conducts the Homeland Security National Risk Characterization, which identifies the top risks of strategic significance to the nation to inform the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review.

But when she’s not averting national security threats, there’s always time to come home to the College that holds some of her most treasured memories — too many to recount them all, Elkins says.

A passionate supporter of all things Sweet Briar, Elkins was the commencement speaker in 2010 and donates regularly to the Annual Fund. She is a member of the Boxwood Society and will begin serving on the Alumnae Association board as chair of the Annual Fund on July 1.

In our Q&A below, Elkins talks about why the College is so important to her, and what it takes to find a fulfilling job.

Your mother, Judith Elkins, was a professor at Sweet Briar. What was it like growing up on campus?

My family has been very involved in Sweet Briar. My mother was a professor and chair of the mathematics department. My sister [Rachel Elkins Thompson] and I both graduated from SBC. I have a couple of cousins and a stepsister who attended SBC. My dad volunteered as an assistant tennis coach at Sweet Briar. My brother, who went to Hampden-Sydney, visited SBC often. I have a brother-in-law who went to Virginia Military Institute, and he’s learned to appreciate Sweet Briar pink-and-green!

It’s been a very good experience to have that many family members contribute to Sweet Briar and benefit from the SBC community. I hope my two nieces consider going to SBC in the future.

Elkins and some of her classmates at their 20th reunion last year

Did you always know you would attend SBC?

I was considering a number of different schools, but found myself comparing each school to Sweet Briar for the best mix of academic and social aspects. I am glad I made the decision to go to SBC.

What extra-curricular activities were you involved in?

I played varsity tennis for three years, was in Earphones and was a Chung Mung. I also volunteered to be the Vixen mascot. Do parking tickets count as extra-curricular? I got those, too!

What happened after graduation?

I went immediately to graduate school in mathematics at Texas A&M University-College Station, but found that I really liked applied math and operations research, which is in industrial and systems engineering. I was lucky [to be able to make] the switch to finish my Ph.D. in engineering at Texas A&M. My advice for students and recent graduates would be to take good coursework and get well educated — you’ll never know what you like doing and are good at, until you try some different things. I was really fortunate to take math, computer science, physics and chemistry classes at SBC — enough to let me evolve career fields.

How did Sweet Briar impact your career choices, and are there things you learned here that are beneficial to you today?

SBC emphasized the work-life balance — that it is a good thing to be a scholar-athlete. My family established the Judith Molinar Elkins Prize in honor of our mother to recognize the outstanding academic and athletic achievements of a senior majoring in the mathematical, physical or biological sciences, and actively participating in the college community. I know this perspective has certainly influenced how I look at recruiting and hiring technical staff; I have found that people who can balance academics with other interests typically make excellent employees.

The Elkins family at Sweet Briar in 2010, when Debra returned to deliver the commencement speech. From left: Sister Rachel Elkins Thompson ’91, father Bryce, niece Elleree, Debra, niece Alena and brother Asa, Hampden-Sydney class of 1993.

What does Sweet Briar mean to you today? Why do you give?

For me, Sweet Briar is a great professional alumnae network, and an educational institution that I’d like to see continue to be successful. I donate both my time and to the Annual Fund because I like the traditional liberal arts education that SBC provides. I also like to mentor and help others pursue careers in STEM [fields]. Sweet Briar consistently provides a great education base to graduate smart, savvy and well-rounded students, regardless of major.

Aside from your financial support, in what ways have you been involved in Sweet Briar activities as an alumna?

I’m probably down in the area, and stop at Sweet Briar, at least a couple of times a year. I have been staying in touch with math [and other] sciences faculty and email them information on opportunities for students related to STEM graduate fellowships, student internships, specialized hiring for the federal government, etc. More recently, since I work in government, I have met with students and faculty in government and international affairs. Recruiting and hiring to the executive branch of federal government service is kind of tricky, but can lead to incredibly interesting jobs.

Janika Carey

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Category: Alumnae and Development