Alumnae’s Legacy of Public Service

Celebrating GW’s 200th anniversary, distinguished women discussed the influence of GW on their careers in public service.

public service discussion
Clockwise from top left: Frank Sesno, Roslyn Brock, Nadja West and Tammy Duckworth.
April 19, 2021

B.L. Wilson

As a George Washington University graduate student in health administration, Roslyn Brock, M.S. ’89, recommended that the NAACP adopt her master’s thesis as a health outreach plan for minority communities—a decision that led the national organization to recognize health care as a civil rights issue. 

Ten years later, she became the NAACP’s youngest chair of its board of directors. She later founded Equity Partnership Strategies, which provides advice on social justice and became a member of the GW Board of Trustees.

As part of the GW bicentennial celebration, the GW Alumni Association convened a conversation billed as GW’s Legacy of Public Service Thursday evening with Ms. Brock and two other distinguished alumnae: Ret. Lt. Gen. Nadja West, M.D. ’88, Hon. ’17, the former commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Command and the first African American woman three-star general; and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), M.A. ’92, Hon. ’17, an Iraq war veteran, a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and one of the first Army women to fly a combat mission in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Moderator Frank Sesno, the director of strategic initiatives for the School of Media and Public Affairs, started the discussion by asking the panelists to talk about a singular moment at GW that had shaped and influenced their lives.

For Dr. West, that moment came as she witnessed “the kindness and compassion” of Jehan “Gigi” El-Bayoumi, founding director of the Rodham Institute at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences who was then an internal medicine resident. The way she interacted with an older patient who was “clearly not of means” influenced Dr. West to show the same compassion as a doctor.

Ms. Duckworth--who along with Dr. West is among the inaugural recipients of the GW Monumental Alumni Award, an honor for living alumni who have made an impact on the world and embody the ideals of the university--said that joining the ROTC as a graduate student in the Elliott School of International Affairs changed the trajectory of her life. That decision, she said, was made on the recommendations of a classmate who thought it was just as important for her to understand “hard power” as the soft power of diplomacy.

She said that she “fell in love with the Army because it was a pure meritocracy. It didn’t matter that I was this little half-Asian girl.”

The three women also talked about how the university had prepared them to deal with a society and a world fraught with racial tension and incredible challenges.

Dr. West said she “learned empathy, as a physician, caring for other people...and having that modeled” at GW. She learned that “diversity was a strength” because there were people at GW from “all over the country.”

Ms. Brock said that she discovered that “leadership is not a title. Leadership is action.”

“Students must not be afraid to stand in the public square, even if it means standing alone,” she said.

Ms. Duckworth said she learned how to be an ally, which has helped her confront the increasing hostility Asians are facing in the United States and to navigate the Senate.

“I have good days,” she said, such as when Congress passed the American Rescue Plan of 2021, coupled with “bad days,” noting that the legislation passed without a single vote from Republican senators. But she still pushes to work with members of both parties and sometimes gets meaningful results, such as the unanimous bipartisan support from her Fisheries, Water and Wildlife Subcommittee for funding to remove lead from drinking water.

During a Q & A session, Ms. Brock said that students who are called to public service must be prepared to take on a litany of issues--climate change, the impact of COVID-19, unrest in the streets and hard conversations about race, among others. Ms. Brock said she is “endeared by how young people are coming together, nationally and internationally, to fight through the morass and find the humanity in each other.

“Because of them we are having a serious conversation about race in this country,” she said.

Dr. West noted that students “are being called to be leaders from every seat. . .to provide motivation and direction...and to be comfortable with uncertainty and chaos."

Politics and Society