Meet the 2021 Keynote Speaker: Denise Turner Roth

Schar School Government and International Politics alumna Denise Turner Roth
Denise Turner Roth: ‘Even if you think your career ultimately will be in the private sector, you will have a much better experience if you start in the public sector.’

Schar School 1999 alumna Denise Turner Roth will be the graduation keynote speaker during the in-person “mini-ceremony” on Tuesday, May 11, at 4 p.m. at Mason’s Fairfax Campus. Roth, who is on the Mason Board of Visitors, is president of advisory services at WSP USA, an international engineering and design firm with 14,000 employees around the world. Here, we reprint a story from 2016 when Roth was deputy administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration.

We should all be lucky enough to enjoy our jobs as much as Denise Turner Roth, BA Government and Politics ’99, does hers. 

“I look forward to coming to work every day,” she said. “And every day I have an experience where I go back and say, ‘Wow, I just did that.’”

She even enjoys the commute into Washington, D.C. 

“It’s got great views of all the monuments.”

Roth’s office is on F Street, not far from the White House, which is fitting because she was appointed deputy administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) by President Barack Obama. The GSA is the 12,000-employee, $22 billion-a-year federal agency that provides support to most of the other federal agencies.

As deputy administrator, Roth is the organization’s chief operating officer, providing overall management and building on efforts to improve the agency’s performance. She is working to support the agency’s mission of delivering the best value in real estate, acquisition, and technology services to government and the American people.

It’s a job she takes to heart.

“Growing up in Anacostia, I know there were people who were in an office somewhere developing policy that was about improving communities like mine,” she said. “And because they took that time and came to work every day and put that thought and effort behind it, I ultimately benefited. I like to see myself as doing that. I never met those other people, but they changed my family, they changed my community, and I’m hoping to do the same here.”

Roth, who was recruited from the inner city to attend the private Bishop Denis J. O’Connell High in Arlington, Virginia, came to Mason as a first-generation college student inspired to find a life in public service.

“I had a very clear interest in government and politics,” she said, “and among the strongest things about Mason is the number of faculty members actively engaged in both the national discussion around politics as well as policy.

“So many of the professors I had were also those commenting on National Public Radio or on the television talk shows. I got to see the historical policy development side at Mason, but I also had professors who were living the practical side,” she said. “It really was beneficial.”

So was her time on the Mason Student Council “where I had a chance to live out my interests,” she said. And while she finished her degree at night, she landed a job working for U.S. Rep. James Moran (D-Va.) before graduation. “I was living on campus, engaged, and involved. I was even on the Mason Dance Team.”

She and her husband and their four-year-old son relocated this year to Northern Virginia from Greensboro, North Carolina, where she had been city manager. In fact, her entire career has been in public service, and she tells students not to rule out public service as a career option.

“Even if you think your career ultimately will be in the private sector, you will have a much better experience if you start in the public sector. You get to invent and be creative, and you also get to see your community and, really, the world from a whole different perspective.”