Take Five with Avery Alpha ’03

Avery Alpha


Avery Alpha ’03 is a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Department of State and currently leads the team responsible for counterterrorism in Asia. She served as the senior policy adviser and chief of staff for the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism at the White House from 2015 until the end of the Obama administration in January 2017. In that role Alpha helped coordinate, implement and advance the President’s policy priorities on counterterrorism, homeland security and cyber security. Alpha joined the National Security Council in 2014 as director for counterterrorism; she is also a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations, where she co-chairs its Term Member Advisory Board. Alpha lives with her husband in Washington, D.C.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

Shy and a bit naïve. Southern (apparently, I was the only one who didn’t think I had an accent). Brunette. I was really excited about all New York City had to offer and how different everything would be from rural Louisiana, where I grew up literally across the road from a cow pasture. I wanted to experience it all and loved the fast pace, vibrancy and diversity of the city and all it and Columbia had to offer.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

Carman 6 and great friendships built in those hallways with so many unique, smart and fun people — my Polish football player friend from Brooklyn, my Park Avenue friend who immediately schooled me that my jeans were way too narrow, my swimmer roommate who embodied her native California and never quite adapted to dressing for a real winter. The look of shock on my grandmother’s face when she saw our dorm rooms’ white cinder block walls. Realizing I was not nearly as committed to science and math as the average pre-med student and should go in a different direction, which ended up being poli sci and international relations. A lot of late nights studying in Butler — only at Columbia would the library also be such a social scene! — and hitting up JJ’s Place. And an amazing capacity to not need sleep — I really wish I had retained that one.

Avery WH

Alpha (far left) in the White House Situation Room during a Principals meeting with President Obama ’83 following the Orlando night club attack in June 2016.


What class do you most remember and why?

Professor Dennis Dalton’s class on political theory. He actually taught it at Barnard, but a ton of us from the College took it. He was a powerful professor and so passionate about each of the books on the syllabus and getting through to even the most resistant student in the classroom. It was an amazing reading list, from Gandhi to Hitler. You could feel how much these books and teaching them meant to him every day. He emphasized the need to prioritize humanity and personal connectivity and ensure we didn’t fall into any sort of urban numbness.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

In my earlier years, St. Paul’s chapel. I wasn’t particularly religious, but I remember finding a unique feeling of peacefulness there on the Sundays following 9-11. Our community came together there to cope with the shock of the attack and losing so many of our recent graduates in it. The intimate nature of the chapel and the quiet time it gave us to reflect provided the comfort we were all searching for. In my later years, the Low Steps. They were the heart of Columbia, offering the best view of campus’ historic buildings and the energy of the student body, badly needed Vitamin D (my parents called me Casper my first trip home at Christmas). So many memories there — from the annual Bacchanal concerts to our graduation ceremony in the rain.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I would stay in touch with Wendy, a long-time Columbia employee in the Language Lab (which probably doesn’t even exist anymore — it used to revolve around checking out cassette tapes!). I had a work study job there and she took such great care of all of us, like a second mom. I don’t think I ever adequately expressed my appreciation to her.