The Sky’s Not the Limit

The Sky’s Not the Limit

Amanda Simpson ’83 makes career and personal transitions on her own terms.

ON HER 15TH DAY ON THE JOB, AMANDA SIMPSON ’83 sat in her Pentagon office looking out her windows— at a brick wall. While she does get some sunlight into her office, the new deputy assistant secretary of defense for operational energy in the U.S. Department of Defense has a better view from inside the room. On one wall is her Harvey Mudd College diploma—a bachelor of science in physics—along with a master’s degree in engineering, a master’s of business administration and several certificates of achievement. On another wall above her desk hang two prints she’s had since her days in West Dorm, and 30 years later, they still inspire her. Both depict World War I bi-wing aircraft in combat, and for Simpson they represent heroism, innovation and progress.

Like the aviation engineers who designed WWI aircraft, Simpson also has pushed the boundaries of aerospace technology throughout her career. Now serving at the pleasure of the president, Simpson leads the organization responsible for all the U.S. military’s use of energy around the globe. The trajectory of her career has been a series of seized opportunities, each one taking her down a new path and shaping who she is today.

Simpson takes the controls of an Army Black Hawk helicopter, one of more than 60 aircraft that she’s flown.
Simpson takes the controls of an Army Black Hawk helicopter, one of more than 60 aircraft that she’s flown.

Why did you choose Harvey Mudd College?

It’s an interesting story because Harvey Mudd was not my first choice. It wasn’t even my second choice; it was my backup. I had never heard of Harvey Mudd College. But a counselor at my high school had recommended that I apply to Harvey Mudd and Clermont Men’s College (as it was called back then) as backups to where I wanted to go, which was MIT or Caltech.

I didn’t get into MIT or Caltech probably because I finished all of the high school math courses back when I was a sophomore and all the science courses when I was a junior. And then I pretty much kinda—I won’t say screwed off, but I spent my senior year of high school doing band and orchestra. I wasn’t taking any “serious” classes; I didn’t think to get ahead by going to a community college and taking calculus or something like that. I think that kind of was a hit against me, and so I didn’t get into my top two. I ended up going to Harvey Mudd, and looking back, I think it was the best accidental decision that I have ever made.

That’s quite a compliment to Harvey Mudd.

It should be. Harvey Mudd is an incredible school, and it’s not because of the buildings. It’s because of the professors and it’s because of the people, it’s because of the administration. The academics are incredible, but it’s the environment that has been fostered there, with regard to really building a very rounded individual, that really makes it stand out. There is that painting of Harvey Mudd that shows him juggling a variety of different things. In other words, he was trying to do more than just become an engineer. That life has a balance.

So what was your experience like? Is there a particular memory that stands out?

I wish my memory was that good looking back that far. I did have some favorite professors, including Tom Helliwell and Gerald Van Hecke. I really enjoyed their classes and discussions. J’nan Sellery, who unfortunately passed away a few years back, let me explore areas outside the scientific. If there was ever such a thing as an official minor at Mudd, mine was public relations. I made it up, and it was about outreach—working with people. It was a little sociology and a little psychology and a lot of different things mixed together. I think it made me a more rounded person, and I think that’s kinda what the secret sauce is at Harvey Mudd College. It’s not just churning out engineers and scientists, it’s churning out really valuable members of society.

What drew you to the aviation and aerospace arena?

Space. I grew up in the ’60s, and I don’t remember much about the Mercury missions, but I certainly remember the Gemini and Apollo, and I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to get into space, and I just loved science and couldn’t get enough of math. That’s what I wanted to do and had no clue how I was actually going to get there, but the opportunity to do something that I found enjoyable was where I wanted to go. So that’s kinda where my interest in aviation and aerospace was but I never really figured out how I was gonna get there. I just said, it’s all based in science, and I want to participate in that.

Simpson was a guest of NASA for the final flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, STS-134.
Simpson was a guest of NASA for the final flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, STS-134.

When did you realize that that’s what you wanted?

I remember in third grade ordering a book from the Scholastic catalog on the building blocks of the universe. In third grade, to get a book that’s about 600 pages that goes into the details of all the elements and how they interact and their foundational building blocks—what third grader does that? That’s where my interests always were.

In intermediate school, I had a corner of the eighth grade science lab, and I would go in and set up experiments. I just loved doing that stuff. So it seemed a natural fit that I would go to a school of science and engineering. That it had all this other well-rounded stuff that was a big bonus because I think that’s where I really learned more about myself and more about civilization and society than I could have elsewhere.

And then there was the Bates Program. After my senior year of high school, I already knew I was going to Mudd, and there was a gathering of prefrosh at an alum’s house in Orange County, California, where I was living at the time. And I do not recall who told me about George Nelson, Pinky, that there was an alum of the school who was in the space program. And I went, “Wow, I’m going to a place where one can go and then can become an astronaut because it’s already happened. So how did he do this?” And they said, “Well, there’s this program called Bates and they teach you how to fly and that’s where he learned how to fly. Then he used that and got into the space program.” [I thought] Wow, I’ve got to do that.

Even entering as a freshman, I said this is something I have to find out about, and I have got to get into that program. So to me it was all about that future aspiration of going into orbit. The Bates Program was a key foundation of where I am today. What you did in Bates was the practical application of the science and technology that we were learning in the classroom and the laboratory. That may be true, but it was also about expanding our own knowledge and experiences, breaking the bonds of Earth and going up in the sky and moving in three dimensions and learning all about not just the mechanics of flight, but the responsibilities and implications and how it all worked together in the National Airspace System and on and on and on. It was fascinating.

I was one of just a few that were accepted the next year into the [Bates] Aeronautics Program. And I actually lived my sophomore year—back then, sophomores could not live on campus, there were not enough rooms, so all sophomores lived somewhere else—and I rented a room and lived at the Critchell’s for my sophomore year, which was great. Talk about being fully immersed in aviation, not just what I was learning, but the history of aviation. The library that Mrs. Critchell had put together is phenomenal, and it was accessible to me all the time.

I learned so much there about the responsibilities that one has with the technology that we developed and how one can actually apply it. That has set a basis that I have leveraged for many, many years. And there’s a picture of Iris Cummings—Mrs. Critchell before she was married—here in the Pentagon, on a display about women in aviation, and even today she’s a constant inspiration.

Tell me about some of the things you learned in the Bates Program, both tangible and intangible.

I learned how to manipulate an aircraft in three dimensions and, when we got to the Aero 2 [course], fly in the National Airspace System as an instrument pilot. And in Aero 3, we’d become a flight instructor and work with students and learn how to teach. Teaching is a pretty intangible skill. There are books that the FAA puts out about how to teach and the fundamentals of learning and all the book knowledge, but it’s sitting down across the table and teaching someone and then going up in an aircraft and teaching them a skill that is going to literally change their lives—it’s a gift that was given to me then and will forever be with me.

I use that skill in teaching in aviation or teaching in a variety of other venues, whether it be a formal course, like in a school, or informal. I’m teaching, in a way, to my employees on a regular basis. Whether I’m boring them with stories that always have a point or just sitting down and instructing them on how to do something, and then being able to walk away and let them do it, that’s a gift and that is an intangible skill that I learned at the Bates Program.

Is there any tangible skill that you’d like to elaborate on?

I learned a different approach to flying an airplane. I’ve flown so many airplanes; it’s more than 60 in the 30-some-odd years I’ve been flying; 60 different makes and models. But there are some pilots who fly one or two and they become really good at that aircraft, and then you put them in something different and they flounder.

But the skills that I learned were not aircraft-specific so I was able to translate from the Cessnas that we learned at Bates to occasionally flying the Piper, the low-wing aircraft, and then next thing you know I’m flying Mooneys and then I’m getting into twins and then light jets and a variety of different aircraft. The basic skills that we learned were directly transferrable. I literally sat with someone in an aircraft that I’ve never been in, even sometimes a totally different type of aircraft. I got to fly a Black Hawk helicopter with the Army a couple years ago and went up with a tech pilot, and I have almost no helicopter experience. I’m doing maneuvers and things, and he’s like, “Are you sure you’ve never flown a helicopter?” He says, “If this is how good you are with a half-hour of experience, you should go out and get your helicopter rating because you could teach this.”

That’s because that’s the way I learned—to evaluate and adapt very quickly. So yes, 60 makes and models. I had a lot of fun with them. My favorite was the T-39, the Sabreliner. It’s a little business jet, probably really the first successful business jet. It predates the Lear, and it was just a really fun plane to fly. I have almost a thousand hours flying one, and I could make it do almost anything I wanted to. I didn’t fly it like a business jet; I flew it as a test aircraft. I was privileged that I got to fly in a way that most people didn’t get to, and so I always enjoy it when I strap an aircraft on, so to speak.

Do you still fly?

Not as much as I would like. I was up this last weekend just trying to brush a little of the rust off, do some landings and do some air work. But I don’t often have the time that I used to.

How did the Bates program prepare you for what you’re doing right now?

I have the ability to adapt and the ability to get to the core of the issue. When you’re flying an airplane, you can have a great time and you’re enjoying the scenery but you still have to remember that you’re flying an airplane. So in business or in government, you still have to remember that you have a certain responsibility to your number one mission, and keeping that in mind is always important as you’re moving through. It’s sometimes resetting things. Why are we going? What are we doing? Is this the right thing to be doing?—that applies to flying an airplane and it applies to managing a business.

What other experiences besides the Bates program prepared you for the career path that you followed?

I don’t think anything really ever prepared me for a career path. I have a son in college right now, and he often asks, “What classes do I need to take to prepare for this type of career?” I said, “Well, we can talk about that, but do you really want to map out your entire future at age 20, when you’re in college? Don’t you want to be able to adjust, maybe do something different than what you’re thinking of today?”

At Harvey Mudd, yes, there was the science and engineering. I’m a scientist; I have a degree hanging on the wall right over there. I am an engineer; I have another piece of paper that says that. Those are very valuable because there’s a way of thinking associated with that. But at the same time, Harvey Mudd was about understanding that there’s so much more in the world. When Harvey Mudd College is described as a school of humanities that focuses on science and engineering, I think that’s great because it is about the humanity, not necessarily the science, that drives our society. So that worked very, very well for me.

Have you attended any of the Bates alumni events or kept in touch with others Batesers?

When I was living out in L.A. I kept a little more in touch than I do now. When I was in Tucson, Arizona, I had some Bateser friends who lived in town, and we would get together, either to go flying or just get our families together and have dinner. But I haven’t really stayed in touch with too many Batesers here in the D.C. area. I attend some alumni events when they happen here in D.C. But not as much as I would have liked because there’s some pretty neat people that went through the Bates Program.

Your college peers knew you as a man. How did your Harvey Mudd friends react when they learned of your transition?

I could say that every one of them was very supportive. I don’t remember which reunion it was … oh yeah, my 20-year reunion. I think that’s when everyone first saw me, saw Amanda. We were a small class; we were around 100 graduates, one of the last of the small classes. I either made the assumption that everybody knew or didn’t care, and I don’t think I lost any friends from Harvey Mudd. I keep in contact with quite a few from those days as well as faculty. I remember I was in a conversation, I won’t use the professor’s name, and we were talking and he’s like, “It sounds like I know you; who are you?” and I told him who I was, and he just gave me a huge hug.

That’s my memory of experiences with Harvey Mudd. Yes, there was a lot of learning and there were a lot of all-nighters and head scratching as we tried to figure out how to do p-chem or various engineering problems, or my senior physics project. But it was about the people. It was the interactions, hanging out with the professors after hours, and taking a course on wine tasting or just sitting around and trying to figure out how to make the world a better place. That’s what I wanted to do, and I think I have and I continue to.

How did your early aerospace career take the trajectory to where you are in your current career?

I started at Hughes Electron Dynamics Division out of college doing, of all things, vacuum tubes. They were traveling wave tubes—the main signal amplifier in airborne radars—and it was straight application of Maxwell’s equations (for those students who are still in their sophomore year or even freshman year now). But even though I got an opportunity to work with some of the military fighter programs back then—the F-15, F-14, a little bit on the F-18—I missed working in aviation.

So I had been sharing with people how I was looking to get back into more direct aviation projects, and a few weeks later I was approached by someone at the Hughes Missile Systems Division, inquiring if I would be interested in becoming a test pilot for the company, leveraging my piloting skills to become an in-flight test manager. That was an incredible opportunity to take a different path. Had I stayed where I was, I’m sure I would have done very well; I had already been promoted to program manager and was looking at becoming a product line director, but gave that up to go fly jet aircraft.

Within a few years at Missile Systems, I had taken over that organization and was leading their flight test division. When Hughes closed the facilities in California and we merged with General Dynamics and then later with Raytheon and Texas Instruments, I was responsible for integrating all of those flight test programs together in Tucson, Arizona, and I got more and more into the project side of things. So I was doing less flying and more project development and working with the teams to tackle very unique and difficult technical problems. And lo and behold, I was very good at that, too, and leveraged that to move up in the program management leadership.

One thing leads to another, looking for or being open to opportunities that present themselves, even though they may not have been on the original career path. That’s how you move, that’s how you expand, that’s how you learn and grow. I didn’t start out to be a test pilot, I didn’t start out to be a program manager, but opportunities presented themselves to try something different, and I did. I got assignments that would take me to various parts of the country for months at a time, working with helicopters in Connecticut or flight tests in Florida or winter testing in Michigan and summer testing in Arizona. There were some really neat opportunities over the course of my career with Hughes and later Raytheon when they were purchased, and those helped shape who I was.

What drew you into politics?

Simpson and her partner, Jennifer Watkins, meet President Barack Obama.
Simpson and her partner, Jennifer Watkins, meet President Barack Obama.

After I transitioned back in late 1999 into 2000, an openly transgender person was not as well-known or tolerated as they are today. Even though I had the backing of management at the company, there were some people who had some issues with me. So I was having some difficulty staying busy, i.e. keeping assignments, and so I had a lot of free time. I tend to be, for lack of a better word, a workaholic. I get very involved in things. At work, if I had an assignment, I would probably be at the plant from 7:00 in the morning until 7:00 at night. But if you don’t have a lot of work to do, you’re coming in at 8:00 and you’re leaving at 5:00.

I had time on my hands to do something else, and politics and serving others had always been very high on my list. So I started to explore that, and I felt one way to do that would be to run for public office. In 2004, I did run for the state legislature in Arizona and actually won the primary election. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get enough financial backing to sway the general, and so I didn’t win that election. But I learned a lot and made a lot of great connections, and I kept those active even after that election to the extent that even though things had worked themselves out at Raytheon and I was busier than ever, I kept my finger and connections active in the political arena, and in doing so, I met representatives of of Senator Clinton’s and Senator Obama’s campaigns back in 2008.

After the inauguration in 2009, I received a phone call from the White House saying that they were looking for people who understood politics but were experts in their field, and they thought that I could contribute to the Administration. And I’m not one to say no to the White House! So that was another one of those opportunities that just presented itself, and my career went in a totally different direction at that point, and here I am today.

Can you tell me about some of the highlights of your political career? Your first position was on the City of Tucson Commission on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Issues.

I thought, “What can I do to give back to the community?” After I transitioned, I had some time, so what can I do? There are lots of different ways to serve, and I saw a need to do outreach and to help steer the policies and practices of the city government and its organizations. I was appointed to be a commissioner, and monthly we would get together and meet with the police department, fire department, other parts of the city to see what we could do to make life better for the citizens of Tucson. That was very rewarding. It was through those connections that I eventually decided to run for office.

I served on a lot of different boards during that time for different organizations, civic organizations and gay/lesbian organizations. Some were political, some were health advocacy-related, some of them were legal advice groups that I was helping raise money for or increase public awareness. There were a variety of different ways I found that I could serve the community, and I think that, to some extent, added to my resume, if there was ever such a need for that. I think that caught the interest of the Obama Administration once they were sworn in.

Did those roles in various civic organizations and boards help prepare me for that? Yes, but at the same time, it’s very different when you are serving on a board or a commission and offering guidance versus when you’re head of an organization and everyone’s coming to you for direction and leadership. I think that was where I was able to leverage my skills learned when I was in management or being a command pilot in our test program. It’s sitting with the controls of an aircraft that weighs tens of thousands of pounds with five or 20 people in the back running different instrumentation—you have to make decisions; you’re providing leadership constantly. So now I fly an organization, so to speak.

So it was your entire trajectory that taught you to adapt, taught you the skills for teaching and leading, and then just being open to opportunities that presented themselves.

Right. I think the best leader is going to be someone who’s well-rounded, and apparently I’m well-rounded. I have lots of experiences that I draw upon in the various positions that I have and do hold.

You’ve handled several positions in Obama’s Administration. Would you like to talk about some of those highlights?

I started out as the senior technical advisor in the Department of Commerce, focusing on export controls. We started what has been a very successful program, which is the Export Control Reform project by the Administration, which looked at how the United States controls technology and technology items that it exports. Specifically, the old rules were based upon a global environment in which all the high technology existed in the United States and there was none elsewhere.

So the policy was, we are going to protect the best technology here in the United States, and we’re not going to let it go out because our enemies—back in those days it was the Soviet Union—could use that against us. So we’re going to safeguard and protect and not let any of that technology leave the United States. The problem is, we live in a global economic world now, and we are not always the leaders in that technology, and business is global. So if you tell a company that if they develop the technology here in the United States and they are not allowed to export it, they’re going to make their investments overseas and develop that technology there where they can share it overseas.

So a revision of those export control regulations to focus on only protecting that critical military technology and do a better job of being able to share and leverage the global economy for other technologies is a major revision that is just concluding, and it has been highly successful. It allows business to invest in technology development here in the United States, instead of encouraging offshoring of our development work.

I did that for about a year and a half, got that project started, and was asked to come over to the Army to be the special assistant to the Army acquisition executive. In that position, we oversaw all of the investments that the Army was making in new technology as well as all the purchases of everything from bullets and uniforms to tanks and attack helicopters, information systems and intelligence and surveillance.

So that was a huge, huge job and I did that for several years, at which point a new organization elsewhere in the Army had been stood up. They were looking for someone to come in and run that organization, so I was tapped to become the executive director for what, at the time, was the Energy Initiatives Task Force. A task force in the Army is temporary, so I transformed that to the Office of Energy Initiatives, which is now an enduring organization in the Army focusing on leveraging third-party private financing to bring energy security to Army installations through the use of renewables.

As executive director of the Energy Initiatives Task Force, Simpson worked on six projects, including the Fort Huachuca Renewable Energy Project, a solar array park that provides about 25 percent of the Fort's electricity requirement.
As executive director of the Energy Initiatives Task Force, Simpson worked on six projects, including the Fort Huachuca Renewable Energy Project, a solar array park that provides about 25 percent of the Fort’s electricity requirement.

That office has been highly successful. They have six projects that are currently in operation or under construction and another dozen that are expected to break ground in the next year or so. I feel really great about that. We brought in over a billion dollars of outside investment to help secure the Army. So I was really thrilled with that. You could almost even say I leveraged that senior project I did so many years ago, which was to design a reflective solar collector. I didn’t do so well on the project, but 30 years later I made it a reality — just on a grander scale.

Then I was offered the position that I have now, as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for operational energy. In this role I lead an organization that’s responsible for all of the military’s use of energy around the planet, which is pretty incredible. It’s all the fuel that goes into the aircraft and ships and trucks and tanks and generators, and even batteries on soldiers that are deployed around the world that power all their devices when they go out on a patrol.

We look at the material solutions, i.e., all the equipment, everything from that battery on a soldier to new jet aircraft. We also look at how we deploy fuel, how we move it around the planet, where do we pre-position it, how does it work into our operational plans, what type of tactics and procedures and policy do we have in place with regard to using energy and how can we use energy to increase the capability of our forces around the world so that we can fight and win and bring our troops home.

This is my 15th day in the office. It’s an incredible job. Not only am I learning a lot, I think I’m bringing a lot of experience and broadness to the office to help focus our activities, because in our budget-constrained environment, we can’t do everything. So we have to do things that will bring us the best return on our efforts. That’s important. We want to make sure that we’re being as effective and efficient as we possibly can with the limited resources that we have. I could tell you I wish Congress would get their act together and give us adequate funding and adequate resources and adequate staffing, but that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen real soon, so we need to make sure that we are ready whenever and wherever we’re called.

Do you have a favorite project that you worked on over the years?

They’re all special to me. It was really neat when I was up flying this weekend. I did head over to Fort Detrick, which is in Frederick, Maryland, and flew over the large solar array that’s going to go online there in a few months. The project down in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, which is online, is the largest solar array in the Department of Defense. That was wonderful because that was one of the projects that I kicked off in negotiations with the local utility in 2013 that funded and built that project. I was there for the groundbreaking and for the ribbon cutting and knowing that it now provides enough energy to power that entire base every day from the sun—that’s pretty cool.

Fort Drum, New York, they have a power plant that runs on biomass. It’s wood chips, primarily, and next month they’re going to isolate the base for a test and run it for two weeks, strictly off that one power plant to show that in the event of an ice storm or other emergency, that Fort Drum can be self-sufficient for energy. That’s a huge, huge win—very proud of that one— and projects that are about to get the final OKs in Hawaii and in Texas and other states around the country. It’s very satisfying to see that there will be these very permanent and long-lasting legacies that I leave behind. But I do know that there are going to be some real exciting ones coming up in the future too, so I’m looking forward to what I do next.

Can you give me a mental picture of your workspace, where you are right now?

Where I am right now is my fairly nondescript office in the Pentagon. I’d say it’s a very nice office. I actually have two windows that look out at a brick wall. The Pentagon is a multistory building in the shape of a pentagon, but it actually has rings. So I’m in the C-ring of the Pentagon, and I’m looking out at a wall across an air gap at the wall of the D-ring, which has no windows on it. So that’s my view. I get sunlight, which is very nice, but it’s not a very exciting view.

But I have room in my office. I just had my staff meeting where I bring in my senior staff and we talk about what has occurred over the last few days and what the plans are for the next week and looking forward. I sit at my desk with a couple of screens and my stack of reports to read and advice to give. So I’ve got my classified computer, and I’m probably behind on reading some of the reports there, and I just try to keep us moving forward.

I’m new to the office, so over the last several weeks I’ve been walking around the building having meetings with my counterparts in the Air Force, Navy and the Army, as well as a lot of the agencies that work for us, like the Defense Logistics Agency and some of the other organizations within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, to help move the concept of operational energy forward. It’s an old message that has been part of the Armed Services for as far back as anyone can remember, but sometimes we’ve forgotten that, and it has cost lives. Certainly it has cost money, but it also has cost us regarding effectiveness, and we don’t want to repeat those errors again. So I’m doing a lot of outreach within the building, within the Defense Department, but also all the services that report to me.

I have, over my desk, two paintings that hung in my dorm room in West Dorm many, many years ago. The frames are not as shiny as they used to be, but these aviation prints are still in my office. For 35 years I’ve been hanging on to these guys, and that’s kind of neat. Over on that wall there’s my Harvey Mudd diploma with a few others and some certificates of other achievements over the years. So it’s a nice office.

Tell me about those aviation prints. Why are they special to you that you would keep them so long?

They were a gift a long time ago. There are two of them. One of them is called “High Altitude Day Bomber,” and it’s a print from late World War I, and it shows a pair of Allied bi-wing bombers. The guys are sitting out there in the open cockpits, dodging the German planes that are trying to shoot them down. And I think about those aviators back then and the risks that they took, dodging the German planes that are trying to shoot them down. Here they are in these aircraft that were pulled together with wood and cloth, and they were up there pushing technology that had hardly been pushed at that pace ever before. Real innovators and just real heroes.

The other one is called “Old Ones Go, New Ones Come,” and it’s a World War I bi-wing plane chasing a tri-wing plane. You see in the background some aircraft on fire, plummeting to the countryside over what looks like Holland (there are windmills). It’s all about the advance of technology, that you cannot stop and rely on what was the best at the time. The tri-wing plane was highly maneuverable but it wasn’t as fast as the biplanes that came after it, which were then replaced by the single-wing planes that came later.

Technology continues to press forward, and we can’t be stagnant. We can’t rest on, “Gee, that’s just the way we’ve done things in the past.” My office is under the acquisition technology and logistics part of OSD, and [those prints] remind me that we have to keep pressing forward on acquisition and moving the technology forward. They meant a lot to me back in college, and they still mean a lot to me today.

I have some other World War II posters and things that are kind of cute that all deal with fuel and things like that. That’s my office.

What interests you most about aviation and aerospace activity?

I think it shows that the sky isn’t the limit, that we are only limited by our imagination and I see our imaginations as limitless. So why not get your feet off the ground sometimes.

What kind of response did you get when it was announced that you are the first openly transgender woman U.S. presidential appointee?

That was back in late 2009, and it was really strange to see your name, face on all the news outlets. Nightly news, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox, they all did stories about me. All the late-night talk shows, unfortunately, did jokes about me, whether it be Conan O’Brien or David Letterman or Jay Leno and all that back then. That was kind of weird, but I knew that in the long run it wasn’t going to be the news outlets or late night pundits who were going to define who I was. I was going to let myself be defined by my work, and my reputation was going to be built on that, not what someone says on TV.

So I just had to be able to move past that. There are a lot of people in the world who resist change or aren’t comfortable with something they don’t understand, and part of my job is to move everybody forward.

Do you feel like you’ve done that?

I’ve tried to normalize it as much as I can. My job isn’t about advocacy in that regard; my job is very clear with regard to making sure our forces are best prepared, and I do that very well. So as long as I’m evaluated on that, I’m happy.

Have you ever met the president?

I have. Not in long conversations or meetings. I have a lot with the people who report directly to him, but I have met him a couple of times. I find him a great conversationalist, as much as you can do in a minute or two, and really interested. I’ve met some people that when you talk to them, they’re like, “Okay, fine, move on, get to the next person.” He really was interested, wanted to spend more time in discussion. Unfortunately, there were other people behind me waiting to speak, or other people in the room.

I see him as an inspiration to a lot of people, and I am proud to serve in his Administration even more so than I would be in just anyone’s, but it was truly an honor to meet him the times that I have.

Do you still do nonprofit work now?

Not so much. I no longer serve on any boards. I see it as a potential conflict of interest, as I serve here in the Administration, but I do speaking engagements when it works into my calendar.

You’ve earned quite a bit of recognition. What are particularly proud of?

There have been a bunch, and I don’t do it for the recognition, but it’s always neat when it happens. Last year I got one that really floored me. I was named a Woman of Distinction by NCCWSL, the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders. And I got to speak at their national conference last year as one of their Women of Distinction, and it was a room of 3,000 women who were either students or worked at colleges and universities across the country.

The reception that I received was incredibly powerful, and that meant quite a bit to me that the recognition isn’t just within the transgender community or the LGBT community, that what I’m doing is opening inroads for others—for women, for minorities, for people who didn’t think they could be successful because there was, whether you call it a glass ceiling or a lavender ceiling or whatever, that those are just terms, and if you don’t want them to apply, they don’t have to apply. You can move past those, and that meant quite a bit to me.

What do you mean that your reception was incredibly powerful?

When I was introduced, I got a standing ovation, the only one of the evening, and that was even before I spoke. I got another one when I finished. And then afterward, they had a meet-and-greet, and I had a line it took me two hours to work through, there were so many people who wanted to meet me and talk to me. That literally floored me. I did not expect anything like that.

Earlier this year I spoke at the Pride event here in the Pentagon, and my remarks got a standing ovation at that event, the only standing ovation, from the Secretary of Defense, as well as the entire auditorium that was over-full. It’s those kinds of receptions that tell me that the sacrifices that I have made along the way have been worth it, and yes, I have been rewarded, whether it be through recognition or monetarily. I’ve had a pretty good career, and I’ve made money. Not a lot of money because, you know, public service. By the way, accepting a job with the Administration was probably the worst thing I ever could have done economically.

But knowing that the sacrifices I have made to dedicate what has been now six years of my life to public service have been truly appreciated and that I have made a difference to more people than I probably will ever know. I was in Arizona last week, and this young man came up to me virtually crying, he was so excited to meet me because of avenues and doors that he felt I had opened that he could walk through. I am not used to getting that on the street, and it is very touching, very emotional.

Who are your role models?

There’s the real obvious one—my mom, who gave up her college education to put my dad through his law degree, and then only later to find herself divorced with kids and have to go back to work and really excelling at a career with no college education, to the point that she was the leader in her field. She became an insurance adjuster.

Iris Critchell, who was a phenomenal woman, not only the 1936 American Women’s breaststroke champion, who represented us at the Olympics in Berlin, but then went on to become one of the first female aviators in the country at the aviation program at USC back in the ’30s. And then to volunteer and to commit her life during the war through the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (which became known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots [WASPs]), as a woman aviator in the Army Air Corps, and then after that to help high school and later college students expand their horizons, literally, through utilizing flight. Incredible.

But I’ve also had opportunities to meet other role models that have meant so much to many, many people. Sally Ride was a good friend. I met Sally probably 15, almost 20 years ago and we’ve become friends, and we correspond and we see each other every couple of years until her passing. Billie Jean King, we had breakfast once, lunch a couple of times. Really some incredible women who have pushed boundaries for a variety of different reasons, but always not taking no for an answer just because they were women, just because they were seen as weaker or lesser or softer, that they could stand up and say, I can do the job.

What do you feel has been your biggest contribution to the LGBT community?

It’s don’t let others define you, that your potential is yours, not what other people think you’re capable of. You can show them that you can do so much more. And that I was able to be the role model to others, that after transitioning one’s gender one can still advance their career and move forward. Up until me there weren’t really any role models in the transgender community other than people who transitioned and survived or made a statement in their career that they had transitioned on, but very few publicly had progressed. I’ve been able to do that, and others can look at that and evaluate for themselves that they have opportunities, that they shouldn’t let others define them, that has been my biggest contribution, publicly.

Do you have any advice for current students who might be considering a career in government?

I don’t know that there is a more noble job than to be able to serve others, and government is a career of service to the citizens. I find it very rewarding. In some way or another, I’ve been serving on behalf of the military for the 35 years of my career, well, however many years, 32 years, since I graduated. Even before I graduated, my summer jobs were all in the military aerospace field. Don’t expect to be wealthy in money, but you can anticipate being wealthy in satisfaction for what you’ve done for your fellow humankind.

Do you think you’ll ever be involved in politics in the future?

I don’t know. I’ve been offered the opportunities to run for different offices. I’m not sure that that’s where I’m going to go or where I’m going to end up. I’m right now looking at what I’ve got to do through the end of this Administration, and there are many things that will determine what the future is after that, and I don’t know what they are yet. Whether I’m involved in politics, whether I’ll stay in the public sector or whether I’ll go back into the private sector. I don’t know. Ask me in two years. I would be honored to continue to be able to serve in a variety of different capacities. I currently serve at the pleasure of the president, whoever sits in that seat.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I was quite floored, so to speak, to receive the e-mail indicating that [Harvey Mudd] wanted to do a piece on me. That’s quite an honor. I think of Harvey Mudd very fondly and respect all the alums. It’s quite an honor.