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Alumnus Voice: 'Riding the waves of transition'

May 15, 2023 - Yvette Efevbera (IR '09), Ph.D.

Yvette Efevbera earned her undergraduate degree from James Madison College in 2009 with majors in international relations and African studies. She holds a doctor of science in Population and Reproductive Health from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Efevbera also earned a MSc in Global Health from Harvard.

The following alumnus voice, written by Efevbera for her keynote speech “Riding the Waves of Transition,” delivered during the spring 2023 James Madison College Commencement Ceremony, has been repurposed and edited for length.

Yvette Efevebera

Yvette Efevbera delivers the keynote speech during JMC Spring Commencement ceremony on May 6, 2023. Photo by Rod Sanford.


When I came to James Madison College (JMC), nearly two decades ago, I knew I was interested in a career in public service. I was a 17-year old from a small town in rural Michigan. I am first-generation Nigerian-American and had spent time there with grandparents growing up. I had also lived in Namibia with my family for a year and had a life-altering experience — that turned my eyes from my dreams of Broadway musical theater stardom to a pathway of international relations, global health, and diplomacy.

And so I went through college on that pathway.

I left JMC hearing the messages that I was a leader, and went off to my next step — graduate school — believing I knew exactly what would come next and where I’d end up.

I’d like to share a little about my journey since leaving JMC and four lessons I’ve learned from four major points of transitions — things I wish someone would have told me early in my journey into service and leadership. 

Lesson 1: In the midst of a transition, seize opportunities.

I left JMC and went to Harvard University to get my masters in global public health — and quickly realized not everyone thought the way that you and I were trained to think in JMC. My classmates didn’t engage regularly in political analyses and critical thinking; they didn’t want to stay up all night polishing the next day’s class assignment. I was surrounded by classmates with impressive backgrounds and experiences, including in organizations I dreamed of working for.

I would be lying if I said that it didn’t shake my confidence or make me question some of the things I’d left JMC believing were true.

But I selectively took several opportunities that were in front of me — opportunities to gain new skillsets in quantitative and qualitative data analysis, to work and consult with different organizations in different contexts. In doing so, I discovered a passion for using my skills in research to advance programs and policies in a way I didn’t even know was possible during my time in JMC. It led me to a post graduate job leading a division for a nonprofit organization working in HIV prevention in Malawi.

It wasn’t exactly what I had dreamed, but it was an opportunity that unlocked clarity on what my passion really was — improving the lives of marginalized women and young people — and gave me the confidence to go after achieving it.

Lesson 2: In the midst of transition, don’t forget your community!

When I left Malawi, and came back to the U.S., I wasn’t sure what would come next. After a month of no success with applications at my dream organizations, I eventually got a permanent position in Washington, D.C to foray into philanthropy, the people in international development who hold resources and thus decision-making power for the populations I knew I wanted to serve. During my time in D.C., one of my roommates was a fellow JMC alum who came through when I had no idea where I could afford to live.

My JMC community, and Spartan community more broadly, has been the first network I tapped into through alumni clubs when I moved to Boston, and D.C., and Boston again, and Seattle. It’s a community I’ve reached out to for referrals and jobs. It’s a community that doesn’t need to ask why I’m such a fanatic during college football and basketball season. It’s a community that didn’t bat an eye when I painted my nails green and white and wore Spartan Strong gear for weeks while mourning with this community this past February.

Through friendships, thought partnerships, mentorships, alumni, community can be a foundation in the midst of transition in both your professional and personal journeys if you let them. This is a lifelong community if you invest in it.

Lesson 3: In the midst of transition, don’t forget to dream big!

After my time in D.C., I went back to Harvard to pursue my doctorate in global health, graduated five years later, and was preparing to start yet another job.

I will never forget one of my research advisers — the late great Dr. Paul Farmer — reminding me to tap into what I’d cultivated in JMC to dream big.

I’d decided to take a role at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, an institution I knew had unprecedented financial resources but didn’t invest in the topics I had spent my life advancing, topics linking gender equality and adolescent health to global health and policy.

Dr. Farmer asked me, during my dissertation defense, where I was presenting years of my research on the consequences of girl child marriage (before the age of 18) in sub-Saharan Africa, what I would tell Bill and Melinda Gates when I got to their institution about how they could do more in that space.

I told Dr. Farmer they would never ask me — he reminded me it was an exam — and essentially, he pushed me to dream big.

I did, and five years later, I’m so proud to have led the largest private philanthropic foundation in making more than $30M on investments to end child marriage and gender-based violence. I’m proud to have been the first hire to build a new team that will tackle improving adolescent health and livelihood, promising another $70M more of investments.

If I hadn’t been reminded to dream big, I would have missed an opportunity to change the world, in big ways and small.

With these three lessons I’ve shared comes a responsibility. And here’s the 4th and final lesson that I want to leave you with: Know your values and stay true to yourself and the causes you hold dear.

Right now, I stand in solidarity with every single one of you because I’m in the midst of my 4th major transition.

I recently decided to leave my job. I realized it was time for me to go, not because I don’t love the work — I do — but because I realized it was time for me to reconnect with my values in how I do the work.

As I was reflecting on this difficult decision, I wrote a piece that I’d like to leave you with a quote from:

“I'm often asked what it takes to become a leader, and in the midst of my current career transition, I'm struck by how difficult it sometimes is to listen to oneself. I always tell students, mentees and even my younger siblings to follow their passions; to use their head and consult their personal advisory boards; and to follow their hearts. I tell them not to sacrifice their health or dignity for anyone, to bring people who aren’t at the table into the fold, and to create their own spaces that honor their values when they feel they're not being valued.”

Graduates, when the cost of doing business requires you to sacrifice too much of what you believe in, I hope you will stop, reflect, remember your values and make a change.

These four lessons have carried me so far, so keep applying them in your lives and they will carry you as well.

Embrace this crazy journey that you’re about to embark on! Congratulations to the graduating class of 2023!