University of Virginia: Living With a Public Service Mindset


Teacher, police officer, community organizer, politician – these types of jobs are commonly understood as serving the public, but there’s a much broader dimension to the notion of public service that virtually anyone can adopt, Rep. Abigail Spanberger told a gathering of 150 students and community members at Garrett Hall for Monday’s Batten Hour.  

Public service is “when you’re serving something bigger than yourself, engaging with your community or country and where you bring your skills to what you’re doing, a place where you can help people in a tangible way or maybe in strengthening the foundations of the community,” she said. 

Spanberger (VA-7), an alumna of the University of Virginia, former CIA agent and three-term member of Congress, was at the Frank Batten School for Leadership and Public Policy as a guest speaker during Public Service Week. 

“Public service is a career but it’s also a mindset that you can bring to whatever you do,” she said. 

As a federal agent who swore an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, she had the responsibility to, at times, take someone’s freedom or property, but she also made the choice to apply a public service mindset and demonstrate compassion and understanding to people she encountered in her role. 

She has carried this practice through her career and now, serving in the House, said it’s more important than ever.  

Asked about how she deals with the current polarization in Congress, Spanberger said she strives to find areas of common ground, no matter how small, with her colleagues across the aisle. She’s a member of several bipartisan groups, she said, including one where shop talk is  forbidden, and the aim is to build relationships with other members. One, she said, is Rep. Chip Roy, a Texas Republican and UVA graduate: “We come from very, very different political places but we’re both Wahoos and were elected when UVA won the basketball championship.” After getting to know each other a bit, she said, they have worked together on a number of public policy issues.

Spanberger said that out of 435 members of Congress, only about 40 or 50 represent competitive districts – including hers. She has won her district by between 2% and 5% in the last three elections.   

“The benefit is you know you’ll always have someone mad at you. There’s a certain freedom in that, so you know that and you can just keep doing the right thing.” She has to work harder to try to reach more people and to build coalitions, but that’s what strengthens democracy, she said.  

The congresswoman also touched on the crisis in the Middle East, denouncing Hamas and its terrorist attack on Israel. She and some 390 other members have signed onto a bipartisan resolution in support of Israel. “There is no equivalence between armed individual militants going into homes, shooting parents and children, burning down an entire kibbutz, and a military action going after military targets and the terrorists who are perpetrators. Those are different things.” 

Spanberger encouraged students, no matter their career path, to hold a public service mindset in all they do, and to listen to what others have to say, especially those they disagree with. “You can’t change someone’s mind if you don’t know why they believe that they do.” 

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