Debbie Boger ‘93, Outdoor Educator, Urban Food Garden Coordinator & Environmental Advocate

This week, we are thrilled to feature Debbie Boger ‘93 from Glendale, California.

Debbie majored in Biology at Pomona College. The PPWT (Pomona-Pitzer Women’s Tennis) Team secured the SCIAC (Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) Postseason Tournament Crown in each of her four years as a Sagehen (1990-93). She helped make program history as a member of the 1992 NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Women’s Division III Tennis Championship-winning team (led by Coaches Lisa Beckett and Curt Tong and alongside teammates Shelley Keeler Whelan ‘92, Erin Hendricks ‘92, Brenda Peirce Barnett ‘92, Tricia Corran Musick ‘92, Caryn Cranston ‘92, and Amy Burton ‘92). In 2002, Debbie, her six teammates, and two coaches were inducted into the Sagehen Hall of Fame in honor of their outstanding achievement in Kalamazoo, Michigan a decade earlier. By the end of her third and fourth seasons on the PPWT Team, Debbie received All-SCIAC honors and was even recognized as the SCIAC Player of the Year. In 1993, she achieved a No. 15 national ranking in singles and a No. 21 national ranking in doubles with fellow Sagehen Kristina Lott ‘96. Debbie rounded out her senior year not only as the PPWT Most Valuable Player and the Pomona-Pitzer Scholar Athlete of the Year, but also as the Colleges’ nominee for the NCAA Woman of the Year and the ITA (Intercollegiate Tennis Association) Arthur Ashe Leadership & Sportsmanship Award. She also earned academic honors as a Pomona College Scholar in 1991 and 1992 and a Volvo ITA Scholar-Athlete in 1992.

Immediately after college, Debbie moved to Washington, D.C., to take a job with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She felt very strongly about playing a part in cleaning up the environment, as someone who has always loved being in the outdoors and has had a passion for making sure future generations are able to enjoy the natural world. After three years (living in a group house with teammate Shelley), Debbie pursued a Master’s in Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. While in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she met her now-husband, Bill Mallon, who was doing a doctoral degree in education.

They moved back to D.C., where Debbie served as an environmental intern for U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman (Connecticut), who, the next year, ran for Vice President with Al Gore, 45th Vice President of the United States. Working on their campaign was an incredibly memorable experience and taught her that she enjoyed policy more than politics. After former Vice President Gore lost the 2000 presidential election, Debbie began to work in the environmental advocacy field. She served in various legislative roles at the Sierra Club, helped Vice President Gore start up a nonprofit which is now called the Climate Reality Project, and directed a U.S. Climate Policy Program at the World Resources Institute. 

In 2010, Debbie left her career in order to focus on raising her two young sons with Bill. While she primarily stayed at home with her children, she developed a new understanding of creating community. Debbie has been playing a very active role in her children’s schools, putting a lot of effort into developing an Outdoor Classroom for elementary and middle school students. She has simultaneously become involved in urban food gardening, both in the Outdoor Classroom and at home. In 2019, Debbie began to serve on the Board of Directors of a local nonprofit that supports people experiencing homelessness. After three years, she loved the mission so much that she resigned from her position on the Board and joined their staff as the Urban Food Garden Coordinator. Debbie now splits her time between running the Outdoor Classroom and trying to grow as much food as possible in the garden at Shepherd’s Table. In both jobs, she serves as an outdoor educator and teaches members of her community how to grow their own food.

We were so grateful to learn more about Debbie’s lifelong efforts to help the environment⁠—both locally and nationally—and her four years as a Sagehen. She has also shared some powerful words of wisdom for current members and recent graduates of the PPWT Team.

How have you continued to help the environment and share your passion with your community?

Debbie: When I quit my job in 2010, I was terrified that I would completely lose my identity as a competent professional person. I found over time that there are many, many ways to share one’s passion and give back to one’s community. 

After leaving the national policy world of D.C., I figured that another way to help the environment would be to teach children about nature—because kids can’t love what they don’t know. I made it my goal to not only teach my own kids and—through the Outdoor Classroom—other kids about the wonders of nature, but to also help them have positive and exciting experiences in the outdoors. 

It has been amazing to watch students who have never put their hands in the soil to find worms, plant seeds, and harvest their own produce. With my new job at Shepherd’s Table, I look forward to helping people in my community experiencing hunger and homelessness find ways to grow food for themselves. 

As you look back, what are some of the lessons that you learned during your time as a Sagehen? 

Debbie: There were many life lessons I learned in college, but the ones I learned as a college athlete stand out as some of the most enduring. Arriving for practice at 6:30am every Thursday morning taught me that yes, I CAN survive (and even sometimes enjoy) unpleasant experiences and make them productive. Coming to practice day in and day out—being ready to work and getting pushed by teammates who were better tennis players than me—was a lesson in discipline that has stayed with me and, I hope, enhanced my ability to stick with challenging things over time. 

And, I credit my coach, Lisa Beckett, for this lesson that is especially helpful in my older-age tennis playing: sometimes it is enough to simply be the last one to hit the ball in the court—you don’t always have to hit a winner! 

Debbie with her 40 and over USTA (United States Tennis Association) league team in 2017.

What was one of your favorite team traditions and why?

Debbie: In 1992, on the very first day of practice, Coach Lisa announced that each day, we were going to start practice with what she called the Tennis Litany, as follows (I am doing this from memory, so I hope that it’s mostly right): 

  • I love to play tennis.
  • I always think, talk, and act positively. 
  • I always work as hard as I can. 
  • I am confident, relaxed, and focused. 
  • I like myself. 
  • I like and support my teammates and coach. 
  • My teammates and coach like and support me. 
  • I believe we can win the National Tournament. 
  • I WANT to win the National Tournament.

To be honest, when she first made us repeat those words after her, I thought it was pretty silly. We soon learned to say it by heart. Over time, it became a rallying cry for our goal and a real source of bonding. 

By the time we played the finals in the NCAA Women’s Division III Tennis Championship that year, we LOVED that litany. Looking back, I realize Lisa’s brilliance in having us articulate the specific thing we wanted to achieve and work toward it as a specific goal. 

To this day, when I have to do something I’m nervous about, I say to myself, “I am confident, relaxed, and focused,” and it helps me to calm down and stay focused. On the rare occasions when our 1992 team has gotten together over the years, we have said the Tennis Litany together. We all still remember it as a key part of our experience.

What was it like to be a part of the 1992 NCAA Division III Championship-winning team? How would you describe the experience?

Debbie: It may sound corny, but the experience of participating on that team has been one of the highlights of my life. Not just for the experience of playing challenging tennis, having a specific goal of winning the tournament, and actually achieving the goal—all of which is true and was wonderful—but for the relationships I forged with my teammates and coach. 

This team went through a lot together—interstate road trips in a small van, cross-country airplane rides for tournaments, heart-to-heart meetings on the floor of hotel rooms, hilarious negotiations about who got which beds in our accommodations, getting through heartbreaking losses and celebrating wins, negotiating ground rules for our nights off, dozens and dozens of meals at The Olive Garden, frozen yogurt runs, dating and breakups, and retreats at Halona Lodge. 

Decades later, I feel like I could call up any one of my teammates from that team and it would be like only minutes have passed. Celebrating the joy of achieving something significant with people close to you is amazing, but the relationships have meant the most to me. 

Debbie with members of the 1991-92 PPWT Team and Coach Lisa Beckett in Hilton Head during spring break.

What was one of the most memorable college matches that you played and why?

Debbie: In 1993, I was the only remaining player from the Championship-winning team of the year before. I played No. 1 singles and felt outmatched by a lot of my opponents. 

The morning that we played UCSD (University of California, San Diego), our best regular-season competition, my alarm didn’t go off and I woke up only a few minutes before I was supposed to be at the courts for the match. I ran to get a bagel from Frary Dining Hall on the way to the courts and arrived completely disheveled.

I had to play Robyn Inaba, who was then ranked No. 8 in the country—and very intimidating to me! To my complete amazement, I started winning. I kept hitting this short angled backhand that she had a lot of trouble with. We had an incredible match—it was one of only a couple of times in my life that I was truly “in the zone” and felt like I couldn’t miss. I won the match in a third set tiebreak and literally threw my racquet up in the air in joy. 

What advice would you give to current members and recent graduates of the team?

Debbie: This is more big-picture life advice, but here goes: Be as open as possible to new pathways in life—even pathways that you think aren’t for you. I was absolutely certain I’d work full time and pursue professional opportunities until I retired—I even remember telling my then-boyfriend-now-husband, “I will never be a spouse who stays home with the kids and cooks dinner.” I’ve just finished twelve years of doing exactly that, and it turns out that I loved it, and I feel very grateful and happy to have had the opportunity to do it. It would have made my transitions a lot easier if I would have been more open-minded from the start. (Another way to say this: Never say “never.”) 

Another piece of advice: Reach out to Pomona alumni. We would love to help in any way we can!!

(Images courtesy of Debbie Boger)

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