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Emory student reflects on experience at U.S. Capitol during Electoral College vote certification

Emory sophomore Virginia Brown (right) helps carry Electoral College votes at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. As similar photos went viral, sharers incorrectly stated that they were securing the votes from violence; the photos were actually taken earlier in the day, but Brown says she is “grateful to be part of any inspiration that shows the best way forward is to uphold our democratic values.” Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images.

Nearly everyone on social media this week has seen Emory University sophomore Virginia Brown.

She’s the one in a houndstooth dress, somberly helping carry a large leather box containing Electoral College ballots in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

The photo went viral, incorrectly identifying Brown and her colleague as the staffers who saved the ballots when rioters violently broke into the building in a bid to disrupt the certification of votes, although she was actually photographed carrying the ballots earlier in the day.

Brown is as quick to hail the real rescuers — the women from the Senate Parliamentarian’s office — as she is to understand public eagerness to define the day beyond more harrowing images.

“I appreciate it as an opportunity to recognize the people behind the scenes who, nine times out of 10, never get a photo of them doing their jobs, working hard every day, to keep our government running,” Brown says.

“It hasn’t fully hit me yet, but I’m grateful to be part of any inspiration that shows the best way forward is to uphold our democratic values,” she adds.

That optimism and resilience have deepened since Brown arrived at Emory with thoughts of a political career as the best way to make change in the world.

In between 6 a.m. wake-ups for workouts as a member of Emory’s cross country and track and field teams and time working for The Emory Spoke satire magazine, her classes broadened those plans. Her ambition is now law school, with a focus on public policy.

Brown declared a political science major, with a minor in sociology, before the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic presented her with a unique job opportunity in the field.

As a high school student, she had served as a page in the U.S. Senate. Back home in Maryland taking her Emory classes remotely, she had the opportunity to return to the Capitol as one of nine former Senate pages hired back as chamber assistants when the coronavirus put a temporary halt to the page program.

She has worked every other day since, helping with day-to-day tasks on the Senate floor while continuing her Emory coursework online.

All nine of the assistants were on hand for the joint session Wednesday, the first time they had all worked together in the alternate schedule.

Brown had just returned to the Senate chambers when she heard police barriers being toppled outside. Within minutes, she was among those ushered to safety by Capitol Police.

“I was running on adrenaline and disbelief,” Brown says. “In high school, it was a big deal to go the White House and protest. It was just sitting on a lawn, holding signs and chanting to be heard. I would never expect a protest to turn into a mob that violently breaches a federal building.”

Sheltered for five hours as police dealt with rioters, Brown saw footage of people climbing scaffolding set up for the upcoming inauguration, entering the Senate chamber and vandalizing congressional offices. “The worst part was the uncertainty. You don’t know what people’s intentions were,” Brown says.

Still, Brown was ready to return to work when police secured the building. She was back in the Senate chamber when Congress certified President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris early Thursday morning.

She expects a short break before Congress is back in session Jan. 20, and she will continue to work as a chamber assistant this spring and into the summer.

“If we let ourselves be scared out of doing our jobs, it will just make them think they can violently act out anytime they don’t get what they want,” Brown says. “I’m proud to have been a part of making sure our work was done.”

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