Each month, a Truman Scholar who has established himself or herself in public service will be profiled in a feature article or Q&A piece written by a more recent Truman Scholar. For the first piece in this series, Margot Rogers (VA ’86), Chief of Staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, was interviewed by Bryce McKibben (WA ’08), Staff, U.S. House Education and Labor Committee.
Prior to joining the administration, Rogers worked for more than 15 years for foundations and non-profit organizations on issues of education policy and practice. Most recently, she served as the special assistant to the director of education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she managed and co-led the development of the foundation’s five-year education strategy. Rogers is a member of the District of Columbia Bar, holds a J.D. from the University Of Virginia School Of Law, a master’s degree in American history from the University of Virginia, and a bachelor’s degree in history from Emory University. Rogers lives in Arlington, Va., with her husband and two sons.
Bryce McKibben met Rogers at the beginning of the 2009 Truman Summer Institute. At the time, she was just getting settled into her new position working for Secretary Duncan. During the opening week of Summer Institute, she welcomed all of the scholars to the Department’s headquarters for a forum on education and public service. Ms. Rogers was also crucial in placing McKibben in his summer internship, and it was while working for the Under Secretary at the Department of Education that he was exposed to the administration’s aggressive agenda for reshaping American higher education. He since joined the staff of the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee.
Margot Rogers (VA ‘86), Chief of Staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
By Bryce McKibben (WA ’08), Staff Assistant, U.S. House Education and Labor Committee
McKibben: Ms. Rogers, when you submitted your application for the Scholarship as a Emory University sophomore in 1986, what did you expect your career to look like?
Rogers: I knew a few core things: First, I wanted to go to law school because I was strongly interested in civil rights. Second, I wanted to end up in the field of education in some capacity. Third, I wanted a career primarily in the public sector. Beyond that I had absolutely no idea what my “career” would look like, and I still don’t! I have been very lucky to have been in the right place at the right time in order to have some truly remarkable experiences.
McKibben: Your have led a distinguished career in public service, as an attorney for the Center for Law and Education, senior staff at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and now, Chief of Staff to the U.S. Secretary of Education. How have the Truman Scholarship and the Truman Scholar community supported you in your career as a public servant?
Rogers: I was a Truman Scholar in the 1980’s, when there was no TSLW [Truman Scholars Leadership Week] and no Summer Institute. Early on, while I was very grateful for the financial support – which I needed – I wasn’t particularly connected to the Foundation. But I was very lucky that I got to re-engage in the 1990’s with the Truman community by serving on selection panels, as a senior scholar at TSLW, and in a variety of other small ways. As a result, I have a group of Truman Scholar friends who are very dear to me and who are great advisers on everything from career to child-rearing. I have also felt tremendous support from the Foundation staff over the years; recently, I particularly appreciated advice from [Truman Scholarship Foundation Executive Director] Fred Slabach (MS ’77) about being a Chief of Staff in a federal agency!
McKibben: What advice do you have for recent recipients of the Truman Scholarship who are pursuing careers in public service?
Rogers: First, become a content specialist in something. It’s great to have solid generalizable skills, but over time, content knowledge matters and is marketable. Second, pick your boss as carefully as you pick your job. You want to have someone who will at best invest in you and your growth, and at least ensure that you get great work. Third, find something you love to do. Fourth, live within your means – and if you make more money than you need, save it; there’s little worse than staying in a job you hate because of the proverbial golden handcuffs.
McKibben: How has the opportunity to serve in a new administration impacted you and what inspires you to public service?
Rogers: The opportunity to serve in this administration has had a profound impact on me, particularly because it isn’t something I had ever even contemplated doing. First, I have learned more than I thought possible about how government works; there are few better vantage points for seeing government in action than a Chief of Staff‘s job. Second, I have been pushed in more new ways faster than in any other job I have had. There is an incredible amount to learn and do — and I have loved it! We are at a unique moment in time, when a bi-partisan approach to real reform in our nation’s schools seems possible, and being a part of making that happen is a tremendous opportunity. Finally, I work with smart, thoughtful, engaging, committed people; being reminded every day of the strength of people serving in government is a joy.
As for what inspires me to public service: First, I come from a family in which service is highly valued. Second, I grew up in a small town in Southern Virginia where the public schools closed for 5 years instead of integrating. Many students simply didn’t get to attend school for 5 years, because the adults in the community were not brave. And the schools remained relatively segregated for decades. My family made the decision to attend the public schools and not the segregated private school. In short, my parents were not afraid to do the right thing. As a result of these formative experiences, I decided early on in my life that I was going to try to be brave, and I was going to work on issues related to access to a quality education. That naturally led me to a variety of incredibly satisfying and challenging jobs, in which I hope I have had some impact.
McKibben: Do you have a favorite quote from or story about President Truman?
Rogers: My favorite thing about President Truman is not a story, but a couple of attributes. He was incredibly brave – can you imagine the courage it took to integrate the military, as just one example? And he did it simply because it was the right thing to do. And yet, in the midst of very difficult decisions, he was a man of extraordinary kindness: ordering President Eisenhower’s son back from the Korean war so he could witness his father’s inauguration, writing love notes to his wife, keeping up with his friends. Above all, he remained true to his values and to the greater good of the citizens he was serving.
McKibben: Thank you, Ms. Rogers.
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