The University of Virginia women’s rowing team has won two of the last four NCAA championships, finished among the top six in 15 of the past 16 seasons and won 13 of the last 14 ACC championships. Throughout the spring season head coach Kevin Sauer tinkers with the lineups in each boat in a constant quest to shave seconds off race times. The squad’s 78 rowers constantly compete to fill seats – particularly the 20 seats in the team’s top three boats that will compete in the NCAA championships, to be held May 30 to June 1 in Indianapolis.
Graduating fourth-year student Emily Pik is one of the team’s two co-captains, but even she doesn’t expect to know if she’ll be among the select 20 until days before the final regatta.
Last year was the first time she made the cut. She rowed in the bow seat in the Cavaliers’ Varsity Four, which had captured four of the prior eight national titles. Entering the 2013 NCAA championships, the boat ranked No. 11 in the nation, but Pik and crew finished fourth, just 0.12 seconds off a bronze medal finish.
“That was the highlight of my rowing career thus far,” along with being elected co-captain and her 2010 Youth Nationals victory during high school in Connecticut, she said.
But that’s not what rowing is all about for Pik. “To win a national championship, you have to put the team first, and the individual second. It’s hard. It’s hard to have that perspective sometimes,” she said. The constant internal competition is “both the beauty and the downfall” of rowing for a national powerhouse team.
That spirit of selfless dedication has made Pik a natural leader in virtually every sphere at U.Va., including at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, where she is a leader in the school’s first undergraduate class, comprising 43 students who will walk the Lawn on Sunday.
As with any new program, these students were trailblazers and guinea pigs, said Paul Martin, Batten’s director of professional development and a lecturer in public policy who taught some of the core curriculum for the B.A. in public policy and leadership.
“They were conscious of being a pioneering class, the leaders of this new major,” and were generous with their time and feedback on how to improve things, he said. As such “they’ve been co-designers of this major, and Emily was at the forefront of that leadership.”
Pik helped create the Batten Undergraduate Council. As an executive board member, she organized class events ranging from sunrise hikes and tailgates to a semi-formal dance and a “Leadership Dinner” with Batten faculty and staff.
She also helped organize the first-ever Batten Family Weekend in February, featuring “Batten Legends” lectures by three Batten faculty, to show parents how students are studying leadership and public policy, she said.
Even though classmates and faculty members alike joke that Pik must never sleep, she found time to tackle several academic challenges above and beyond her Batten School classes, in which she earned a 3.6 GPA.
She volunteered to be among the inaugural “Batten Corps,” a program that combines elements of service and academics. Under Martin’s guidance, she and a few Batten classmates researched how the local Albemarle Housing Improvement Program might better measure the effectiveness of its work. “I saw it as a great way to get involved in the local community,” she said.
The students suggested AHIP look at home-value assessments before and after an intervention, and Pik focused on calculating projected future energy savings from certain projects like adding insulation, Martin said.
“That was an awesome experience in terms of presenting real facts and data to an organization that hopefully will use our data to move forward in the evaluation process that they have,” she said.
She also volunteered to be a research assistant for social psychology doctoral student Matt Motyl’s study looking at how people holding a minority political view react in a group that discusses a hard-edged political issue like abortion or gun control.
In the summer of 2012, Pik journeyed to South Africa to study the country’s health care system. Volunteering in community health care centers as part of the study abroad program, she observed how poor South Africans line up for hours to see a doctor, and how the nation struggles with AIDS and tuberculosis. “I learned so much about HIV and AIDS, and about apartheid and Nelson Mandela,” she said. The trip stoked a passion for global public health issues, and she plans to work on the issue in the future, she said.
“Emily embodies all that we hope to see in our Batten students,” said Jill Rockwell, Batten’s senior assistant dean for student and career services. “She is intelligent, and has, quite literally, taken every opportunity to be a selfless leader: on the crew team, in her classes, within the Batten School, the greater U.Va. and Charlottesville communities and even in the commonwealth, through her work in the governor’s office.”
Last summer she was a Virginia Governor’s Fellow in the office of Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Jim Cheng. She put together a policy proposal to tweak a state program that offers student loan repayment help for young physicians – to better encourage them to work in rural areas of Virginia with physician shortages, particularly Southwest Virginia and Southside. Pik pitched the idea to then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s chief of staff, who liked it enough to pass it along to the governor, said Pik’s fellowship supervisor, Logan Pugh. (Pugh is another fellow Batten School pioneer who was in the first class to graduate in 2009 from the five-year accelerated bachelor’s/master’s of public policy program.)
Pik “figured out what was needed, took ownership and delivered high-quality work,” Pugh said. “Her positive attitude and outlook are infectious. And she’s always cutting through issues to create solutions.”
It was McDonnell’s final year in office, so he wasn’t able to take on the proposal. But Pik is still hopeful that Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, might pick it up, she said. “I couldn’t have done it without the background and knowledge I had gained from the Batten School in the previous year.”
This spring she has worked as a research assistant for Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Warner’s reelection campaign. Having worked for politicians on both sides of the aisle, Pik said she learned that party “is not a dividing or deciding factor in terms of coming up with policies and implementing them.”
Later this summer, Pik will start a job in New York City as a research analyst for Cognolink, a rapidly growing young research firm that does global research for investors in a variety of industries.
“I definitely foresee working as a policymaker at some point,” she said. “I just don’t know when or where, or doing what.”
Her experiences in the meantime will be relevant, she noted.
“Even if I work in the private sector, any institution or company is affected by government regulation. I learned that in my capstone project this past semester working on food safety regulation,” she said. “Even though I’m not becoming a policymaker quite yet, I will learn how government impacts things other than health care and the issues that I have studied, which will broaden my knowledge base and make me a better policymaker somewhere down the road.”