Born in Queens, New York, and growing up in the Bronx, New York, Jenkins was the child of a day care worker (her mother) and a store manager (her father). She attended a private all-girls high school in New York where she excelled at academics and athletics, and graduated in 1978. After graduation, Jenkins moved to Massachusetts to attend Amherst College.
Jenkins graduated from Amherst in 1982 and later enrolled in law school at Albany Law School. While in law school, she wanted a greater challenge, so she enlisted in the U.S. Air Force Reserves in 1986. She served for six years as a paralegal at bases in Massachusetts and at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C. In 1992 she applied for a direct officer commission into the U.S. Naval Reserve for which she was accepted and ultimately rose to lieutenant commander.
Near the end of law school, Jenkins won a prestigious Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF), working at the Pentagon and the State Department with the U.S. Arms Control Disarmament Agency. Her duties included traveling abroad with U.S. ambassadors and delegations as a legal advisor and counselor on negotiations for key arms control and nonproliferation treaties, ultimately doing so as a legal advisor for nine years.
Jenkins has also served as legal advisor to several important congressionally established commissions, including the Commission to Assess the Organization of the Federal Government to Combat Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, established in 1999, and as a consultant to the 2000 National Commission on Terrorism. She also served as counsel to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, commonly known as the 9/11 Commission, from 2004 to 2004.
Beginning in 2004, Jenkins worked as a program officer for U.S. Foreign and Security Policy at the Ford Foundation where she was responsible for strengthening public engagement in U.S. foreign and security policy formulation as well as funding programs related to peacekeeping, women in conflict, and natural