Sweet Briar Women: Leading in Public Service

Capitol DCCritical thinking, communication skills, ethical decision-making and problem-solving are all hallmarks of a liberal arts education, but they also provide excellent preparation for civic leadership. Perhaps it is unsurprising then, that so many Sweet Briar women become civic leaders after graduation. Some stand for elected positions, some are appointed to their positions and others are employed by governments at the local, state and federal levels. Regardless of the type of positions they hold, we’re proud of the many alumnae who have dedicated their careers to public service. They’re truly making a difference.

Here are just a few of their stories.

The Art Historian: Emily Pegues ’00

Curatorial associate in the department of sculpture and decorative arts at the National Gallery of Art

Emily Pegues
Emily Pegues

The department Emily Pegues ’00 works for at the National Gallery of Art is responsible for acquiring new works of art; organizing exhibitions; and preserving, displaying and interpreting works of art in the permanent collection. “My favorite part of the job is traveling as a courier with works of art we lend to exhibitions,” Emily tells us. “I’ve gotten to travel and work all over the world! It is quite special to accompany a Raphael back to Urbino, a city I first learned about from Professors Lee Piepho and Rosalia Ascari.”

Sweet Briar has a lot to do with where Emily is today. “At the SBC retirement party for Professor Emerita Ninie Laing ’57, I was one of the speakers and met another speaker, Lynn Rogerson ’76, who was the director of Art Services International. She was looking for an assistant to join her nonprofit traveling art exhibition organization. I remembered ASI from a J-term arts management class visit; it was a company that really intrigued me.” Emily went to work for Lynn. A few months in, ASI needed an education coordinator to cover someone’s maternity leave. “I leapt at the chance, and at age 22 was suddenly doing a dream job of coordinating exhibition catalogues, working with international scholars and gaining tons of experience — an extraordinary opportunity,” Emily recalls. She’s had a number of jobs in the years since — and she’s completed a master’s degree and is almost done with her Ph.D. dissertation, all while doing full-time curatorial work. While exhausting, she says, that double duty has “led to some exciting professional opportunities and cross-collaborations.”

If Sweet Briar’s alumnae network helped make her career, it is the College’s education and its faculty that shaped her as a leader. “Having great professors — great in their professional fields but also as generous mentors and role models beyond the classroom — has been instrumental in my life,” Emily says. “Being accustomed to speak up in the classroom, to take charge on the hockey field, to dive into life as a student in a foreign country are all things we learned as natural at SBC and which have shaped my understanding of leadership.” Good leadership, Emily says, is “doing the fearless right thing even if it makes people uncomfortable. I’m amazed by how often bad decisions are made just because people want to avoid rocking the boat or taking responsibility for saying the tough, true thing. Good leadership is being clear about goals — defining and committing to a mission, having a vision — and working collaboratively and fairly towards achieving it. It’s also about recognizing the value of each member of that team, whatever their role — like the famous photo of President Obama giving a janitor a friendly fist bump, in recognition of the person behind the job and the value of his work.”

The Judge: Verda Colvin ’87

Superior court judge in the Macon Judicial Circuit in Macon-Bibb County, Ga. 

If you didn’t know Judge Verda Colvin ’87 before March 29, 2016, you probably know her now — thanks to a viral video showing her lecture a group of troubled youth. As superior court judge in Macon-Bibb County, Ga., Verda has exclusive jurisdiction over felony cases, divorce, land and equity cases. “No one day is ever the same,” she says. “It is said that we are the busiest trial courts in our nation.”

Verda Colvin
Verda Colvin

Verda’s career started at a civil rights law firm, but she found her true calling where she never expected it — as a prosecutor. “I enjoyed being a litigator — engaging in bench and jury trials,” she tells us. From there, Verda went to work briefly as assistant general counsel for Clark-Atlanta University. “I honed my moral compass there,” she says. Her next step: assistant district attorney in Clayton County, Ga. “I learned that my role as a prosecutor was life-changing, as I could ensure that people were treated fairly as I controlled prosecutions,” she explains. “It was rewarding to ‘do the right thing’ even in a role that people readily assume is antagonistic to someone who finds him or herself in the criminal justice system.”

It is a good thing for Verda — and for Sweet Briar — that she stopped by the College’s table at a fair in College Park, Ga., some 36 years ago. She double-majored in government and religion and held a variety of leadership positions, including as a resident advisor and a member of several student organizations. What drew her to Sweet Briar in particular? “I wanted to attend a secondary institution that would be concerned about me, as a person, and my development as an intellectual,” she says. “I wanted an environment that would care about me.” And she got it. “Sweet Briar molded me into the woman I am today,” Verda says. “I learned to love myself at Sweet Briar and value all that I had to offer the world. There can be no greater joy than to choose an institution that empowers you on a personal level to be your best self. Sweet Briar did that for me.”

And it did something else. “Sweet Briar left me with a keen sense that my success was a necessity,” she adds. “Not just for myself, but for the world at large. I left Sweet Briar with a tenacious desire to do something, to matter, to fulfill my destiny — whatever that was to be. I knew that success was not optional, but expected. That has been the guiding quest since becoming an alumna of Sweet Briar.” And her career is a testament to it. “Leaders DO,” Verda says. “Leaders are those who seek the highest good, who demand the best and give the same to others. They don’t ask that others follow their example but instead, others follow them because of their admiration and recognition that this leader is who they’d like to be.”

The Representative: Felisha Leffler ’17

State Representative in Vermont

In November 2018, Felisha Leffler ’17 was elected to serve in the Vermont House of Representatives — an impressive accomplishment for a young woman less than two years from her Sweet Briar graduation. Felisha says her primary tasks are to listen and advocate. “For all of the concerns and ideas and initiatives I’ve listened to,” she says, “I then must act in a creative and responsible manner to bring solutions forward. To be effective as a representative, I need to be fierce, diligent — leveraging good compromise and creative problem-solving — understanding and honest.”

Felisha Leffler
Felisha Leffler

She says her college experience was an excellent launching pad for her current role, but as a member of the Class of 2017, she experienced some upheaval. “I experienced some of my highest and lowest moments at Sweet Briar,” she says. “But Sweet Briar pushed me out of my comfort zone and put me in a position to forge myself into a better person.” The Sweet Briar community helped her develop resilience during those difficult times. “It was the most compassionate place with the most understanding staff, peers, professors,” she told us. “It’s really the most incredible place for both education and development.”

She knows the resilience she learned at Sweet Briar will help her handle whatever challenges come her way. In addition to the support she got, she also had plenty of leadership opportunities. Beginning with practically her first day, she was involved in one kind of leadership or another, from being a leader in the classroom to serving on student government, clubs and more. “Having a community of so many driven women, there’s always a lot of good ideas on the table,” Felisha says. She learned to define the problem and how to make the best use of many ideas: “Collaboration and leadership go hand in hand, and Sweet Briar really helped me learn that.”

Felisha says running for office felt like a pipe dream or something she would do after she established a career. But as a student, she was able to intern on campaigns. Those internships helped her understand the ins and outs of why people run. “It was different than I had always thought,” she explains. “It was moms looking to change the conversation around education and opportunity. It was young professionals who were passionate about policy and wanted to get involved locally.” Those internships changed her thinking. “I was able to recognize the opportunity to serve my hometown and neighboring community. This allowed me to throw my hat into the ring decades before I thought it possible.” Her time at Sweet Briar also ignited a desire to strive for change and growth in her community. “The student council, Inter-club Council and so many more gave me an appetite to connect with the people and groups around me and work to make a comprehensive environment that’s robust and innovative. My role in public service really hones in on these goals and experiences and allows me to really act as a facilitator for my constituents.”

The Chief of Staff: Morgan Viña ’07

Chief of Staff to the United States Permanent Representative of the United Nations
[Editor’s note: After the Sweet Briar Alumnae Magazine went to press, Morgan Viña started a new job as
chief of staff for international security affairs, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy]

Working in a political position like chief of staff to the United States permanent representative to the U.N. isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a job that requires confidence and a willingness to make tough decisions. Morgan Viña is just that kind of person — and she’s never been the type to take no for an answer. That fortitude goes all the way back to her college days. For example, when she says she “bombed the LSAT” and worried she might not get into law school, she researched and discovered that graduate schools in the UK didn’t require an admissions test. “I ended up getting my master’s degree at the London School of Economics in one year, half the time and cost it would have taken me to attend graduate school in the United States,” she recalls. “Working for the U.S. government, I hear a lot of reasons why we shouldn’t change the status quo. To this, I say, ‘Don’t tell me why something can’t be done, tell me how you’re going to accomplish it.’” That’s a lesson she learned at Sweet Briar. “To be successful, students must do the work and be prepared to be challenged by their professors as well as classmates,” she says. “Similarly, in my career, I am most successful when I do my homework and prepare to be challenged by my principal and peers.”

Morgan Roach
Morgan Viña

As a student, she knew she wanted a career in public service, but wasn’t sure what that would look like. She did a lot of internships, but when she took former history professor John Ashbrook’s class on modern European history, she realized foreign policy was her niche.

Early in her career, when she was working as a research assistant for the Heritage Foundation, Boko Haram attacked the U.N. Headquarters in Abuja. She realized the attack could have broader policy implications. When she told her boss, he said that if it mattered to her, she should write a policy statement. “More to prove a point than anything,” she recalls, “I wrote a blog post and then a longer policy piece. This turned into a bigger campaign to get the administration to designate Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, which they eventually did.” That led to her organizing a working group on Sub-Saharan Africa, which in turn led to a recommendation that she work with Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) when he became the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. When Nikki Haley was nominated to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, it was Morgan’s job to brief her on the committee’s priorities and vet her fitness for office. “I liked her so much that after she was confirmed, I asked her for a job,” Morgan says. “After joining her team in New York and serving as her advisor on management and reform, she asked me to be her chief of staff.”

Morgan has an impressive career, but she still has time for Sweet Briar. She loves mentoring students and recent graduates on their careers. “Working in politics and government can be like navigating a minefield,” she says. “There are so many unwritten rules and protocols one is expected to follow. I had to learn a lot of these lessons the hard way.” She likes the opportunity to help fellow Sweet Briar women learn to swim in those waters.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 Alumnae Magazine.