Making a Difference in the World

When former UN Ambassador Samantha Power last spoke at Middlesex in March 2020, she had recently published her bestselling memoir, The Education of an Idealist, and described for the school community both her career path and her approach to formidable global problems. Now the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), she returned to campus on January 12, visiting history classes, sharing her journey to this post, and detailing some of the challenges involved in delivering civilian foreign aid and development assistance in more than 80 countries. “I’m hoping to plant a seed to inspire you to make a difference in the world,” she said at the start of her talk.

Born in Ireland, Ambassador Power immigrated to the U.S. with her mother and brother in 1979. As a Yale undergraduate, she recalled, “All I wanted to do was to play sports and talk sports.” Her focus shifted to history and foreign policy, however, on seeing live footage of tanks advancing on protesting students in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Combining her writing skills with her interest in geopolitical affairs, Ambassador Power became a freelance journalist covering the Bosnian War, an experience that compelled her to attend law school and led to her first book – A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide – which won a Pulitzer Prize.

Her book caught the attention of a newly elected Illinois Senator, future President Barack Obama, who initially hired her to work in his Washington office. Through this association, she subsequently served on the U.S. National Security Council, became the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and met and married Middlesex Trustee Cass Sunstein ’72, who has well-acquainted her with the School.

Turning to her current work, Ambassador Power explained that USAID was created in 1961 by President Kennedy. Given that “what happens over there matters here,” USAID tackles problems ranging from agriculture and energy to health, girls’ education, and conflict prevention. By supporting other countries and helping them to develop resilience and thrive, she noted, “Ideally, we are building a better, more prosperous world.”

If responding to emergencies caused by wars, drought, and flooding, providing millions of vaccinations, and addressing the root causes of migration did not seem daunting enough, Ambassador Power highlighted several of the biggest challenges confronting USAID. Among these are misinformation about the agency’s work; artificial intelligence and its potential benefits and harms; the trend of authoritarianism around the globe; climate denial and the lack of urgency in cutting carbon emissions; and the risk of the war in Gaza expanding in the region.

“These are no small challenges,” Ambassador Power stated, “and they underscore how important it is for you to stay focused as you get older. We need the best minds to work on problems here and abroad; there is plenty of work to go around.”