To hear the story of Debbie Hersman (political science and international studies '93) is like hearing the classic Robert Frost poem brought to life: Time and again, Hersman has seized opportunities set in front of her, not fearing to take her own path and see where it would lead.
Now the current chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Hersman is prepared to face disaster at the drop of a hat. She always has a suitcase packed, her Blackberry at her side. Should a transportation accident occur in the U.S., Hersman and her agency stand ready to respond, assess the situation, investigate the circumstances, and provide suggestions for safety measures that could prevent such an incident from happening again.
For Hersman, the path to where she is today began at Virginia Tech. "College provided me with a foundation not just professionally, but also in my personal relationships," she says, adding that she has remained close friends with four of her sorority sisters, with whom she gets together once a month.
When Hersman reflects on her years at Virginia Tech, what she recalls most vividly are attending football games and visiting the Duck Pond with the man who would become her husband. And, of course, she can't forget those professors who set her world on fire. "I always loved going to class, being surrounded by so many intelligent people--not just my professors, but my peers as well," says Hersman. She remembers most the professors who posed the most interesting or challenging questions and those who had the most interactive teaching styles.
And, like so many alumni, she cannot forget those long, cold walks across the Drillfield to get to class.
Hersman entered Virginia Tech with her major undecided; she graduated four years later with two majors and three minors. Her time at Tech was full--semesters loaded to the brim with courses to meet the requirements for her majors and minors and plenty of extracurriculars. As a freshman, she even worked in Shultz dining hall.
"I was in leadership sororities and fraternities; I was a resident advisor and a head resident advisor. I had a very busy four years. It taught me to multitask and to take advantage of all the opportunities in front of me," she says.
Ultimately, it was a series of summer internships in the Washington, D.C., office of former congressman Bob Wise that led Hersman to her current post as head of the NTSB. "Taking that path has made all the difference," recalls Hersman, who first began as an unpaid intern in Wise's office the summer after her sophomore year at Tech. She enjoyed it so much that she returned for a paid internship the following summer. After graduation, she began working for Wise full time. She credits that time with preparing her for her current line of work.
When acting as an on-call board member for the agency, Hersman is prepared to be at the airport and at an accident site within hours, regardless of where she's heading in the United States. Once on the scene, she acts as the spokesperson for the investigation while other NTSB staff members probe the contributing factors of the incident.
The agency, which consists of 400 staff members and five board members, is responsible for overseeing and conducting investigations related to transportation accidents, making recommendations for safety improvements based upon those findings, and reporting annually to Congress. Board members are on call for one week at a time, prepared to reach an accident scene as swiftly as possible.
President Barrack Obama nominated Hersman to serve as board chair in June 2009. Following confirmation by the Senate, she was sworn in on July 28, 2009, as the board's 12th chair. She has been a board member since June 21, 2004.
If her days as a Virginia Tech student were crammed, her time as NTSB chairman is just as packed.
Though the job is unpredictable and fast paced, Hersman says she wouldn't have it any other way. "Since becoming chairman, my days have been very full, and all of my time is scheduled. But there's not a moment or day that goes by that I don't look forward to coming to work."
She finds that the agency is able to meet any challenge it faces because of the quality of the staff and the organization's mission. "Part of leadership and management is relying on the team around you. I work for a great agency full of talented people; we have a good mission. Any challenges pale in comparison to the positives."
Hersman says that each job she's had has been better than the previous one--even when she thought she couldn't enjoy a job more than the one she currently had. And she says she doesn't regret a moment of it or any of the stops along the way. "Life is about taking the opportunities presented to you and following them," she says.
Her advice for recent graduates or soon-to-be grads? "Don't worry too much about what's next. Follow that path and see where it leads you."
For Hersman, the courage to embrace these opportunities has truly made all the difference.