Alumnae News & Highlights

“Be deliberate about the choices you make and how you spend your time – but don’t forget to have fun along the way!” This advice, from Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs Director Erica Jeffries-Purdo, closely mirrors the way she’s made important decisions in her life.

Consider the first time she visited HB. “Even though I didn’t fit the socioeconomic profile,” she says, “I fell in love with the school.” One year later, she was enrolled as an HB 6th grader; six years after that, she left as an HB graduate. In short, she says, “I loved my experience at HB.”

In much the same way, Erica knew she belonged at West Point the first time she saw it, on a visit with her church pastor. “It was overwhelmingly clear to me that I wanted to be an officer in the army and lead soldiers,” she says. In fact, she credits HB with giving her the confidence to adapt and thrive in what was essentially then a 90%-male environment. After graduating from West Point, she attended flight school, became a Blackhawk helicopter pilot, serving as a Platoon Leader and an Executive Officer. Then 9/11 happened. She was set to deploy overseas when she was unexpectedly diagnosed with Lupus. Unfortunately, that diagnoses abruptly ended her flying career and she was medically discharged from the Army. Following her discharge, Erica set out looking for a career path in the civilian world instead.

Feeling at first like a “fish out of water,” Erica soon landed a job focused on defense strategy and national security policy at Booz Allen Hamilton; while there she also earned a Master’s in National Security Studies from Georgetown and a few years later, an MBA from Virginia Tech. In 2012, after serving as a White House Fellow during the Obama administration (“the most phenomenal year of my professional career,” she says), she worked as the Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer for an aerospace and defense company before landing her current position as the head of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. “Public service,” she says she now realizes, “is in my DNA.”

Most weeks, Erica - also the married mother of one daughter, with another little girl on the way - finds herself driving throughout Illinois, visiting the state’s many facilities that serve nearly 700,000 veterans and their families. On any given day she could also be testifying before joint committees of the Illinois house and senate, overseeing renovation projects at a state veterans nursing facility, conducting media interviews or helping the governor prepare for an upcoming press conference. Through it all, she stays focused on her mission. “I want to help improve the lives of our veterans,” Erica says. “Our veterans have risked their lives to ensure our freedom. They’ve earned the benefits they have and deserve even more.”

Any more advice to current HB students as they consider their own futures? “Take time to discover what you’re passionate about and then pursue it,” she says. Most of all, “Whatever you do, wherever you go, try to make the world around you a little bit better than the way you found it.”

authored by Lisa Murtha ’88

  • Alumnae Achievement Award