The world that Brenda Barrett ’94 lives and works
in is far removed from that which she saw growing
up in 29 Palms near Palm Desert.
As a senior transition program adviser for
USAID (a federal agency devoted to extending
assistance to countries recovering from disaster,
trying to escape poverty, and engaging in
democratic reforms, according to the USAID
website), Barrett’s assignments take her to war and
disaster torn parts of the world. Though she’s been
shot at by the Taliban while in Afghanistan, she hasn’t been dissuaded
from pursuing her lifelong passion for effecting political change.
It was on a mission in the Wardak province in Afghanistan to observe
water obstruction in a canal and to check on a school that was allegedly
closed by the Taliban because girls were attending that bullets came
whizzing by her head. As the only non-military female member of that
detail, Barrett, who was wearing body armor but not a helmet to show
that she was a civilian, came back undeterred. The Afghanistan assignment
completed, she is now in Tunisia, one of a series of assignments that
have placed her in Sri Lanka, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Haiti in the past
year alone. With USAID she’s also worked in Bolivia, East Timor,
Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza. Prior to joining USAID,
Barrett also worked in Nicaragua (as a Peace Corps volunteer) as well as
in Senegal and South Africa.
Prior to joining USAID in 2003, she also worked for the UN refugee
agency UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and
various NGOs while she was doing PhD work. She also worked in South
Africa with the African National Congress Women’s League. She
completed her PhD research in Sri Lanka and is receiving her PhD in
international development from Tulane University School of Law.
Her work has been the pursuit of a lifelong passion. In high school, she
was likely the only one in her class who had subscriptions to both The
Christian Science Monitor and the Los Angeles Times. “I knew there was
more out there,” Barrett said, referring to life outside of sleepy 29 Palms.
“In high school I was really involved in following the politics of our
country and the world.
At USF, her faculty only fueled her passion.
“I was drawn to the politics department at USF. My interests were
cultivated and all of my pursuits—academic, intellectual, or actual trips
—were supported entirely by the faculty and then Dean (Stanley) Nel and
professors Jennifer Turpin (USF’s current provost) and Rob Elias. USF’s
commitment to social justice, being on the right side—although not
always the easy side of an issue—and the emphasis on teaching/helping
others definitely helped me.”
Barrett, 38, admits that living out of a suitcase and in different parts of
the world is getting to her a bit, though she still loves the actual work.
“I’ve managed for 18 years to do what I love, not compromising my
values, being on the right side of an issue, working in complicated places
and actually being really proud of what we accomplish,” she said.