Will Hehemann | School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences
PINE BLUFF, Ark. – When Elzadia Washington interviewed for an overseas job to aid subsistence farmers in developing countries in 1981, she was one of the few applicants without a passport. Despite her lack of international experience, two things set her apart – her academic history as a graduate of agricultural economics at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and her practical experience growing up on a cotton farm in the Delta.
The job marked the beginning of Ms. Washington’s 30-year career with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which sent her to live and work in countries such as Mali, Belize, Cameroon, Egypt, Haiti, Uganda and the Philippines.
Ms. Washington, most recently the Mission Director for USAID Namibia, spoke as guest presenter for the fall seminar of the UAPB Working Group on Global Higher Education, hosted by the Office of International Programs on Thursday, November 20.
Her message to UAPB students and faculty was the importance of preparing for a global society.
“I grew up in the Delta at a time most people in the area weren’t thinking about global engagement,” Ms. Washington said. “After my career started, I found myself in a position to impact the development of an entire nation.”
When her international career began, the diplomats she met overseas were surprised to hear about her roots, Ms. Washington said. “There was a belief that you had to be from the elite class to be a diplomat. I think my presence showed that not everyone in the diplomatic core had to come from that echelon of society.”
Ms. Washington credited her youth spent working on a farm in a predominantly black community as a source of inspiration for her work overseas.
Over the years, Ms. Washington’s varied USAID assignments have included goals such as health education, deadly disease prevention, good governance, economic growth and natural resources management. As a Mission Director, she served in the highest-ranking USAID position overseas. She said each new assignment, position and country required a change in mindset.
“One of the things we always try to emphasize to those we help is that this aid is from the American people,” she said. “This is American taxpayer money that’s contributing to a more stabilized world, which protects us at home and increases trade and exports.”
Ms. Washington said working overseas enabled her to have a unique perspective when she returned to the U.S.
“I was shocked by the number of children in poverty in Arkansas,” Ms. Washington said. “I was also surprised by the amount of food waste in the U.S. Our country can learn something from the rest of the world about food conservation.”
Ms. Washington said when she was considering which degree program to enroll in at UAPB in the early 1970s, the last thing on her mind was a return to anything agriculture-related. However, a friend mentioned the economic side of agriculture, a path she had never considered. Only a couple years later Ms. Washington was one of the first female graduates of UAPB’s agricultural economics program.
Dr. Pamela Moore, associate director for global engagement, Office of International Programs, noted, “Ms. Washington’s presentation was extremely important in illustrating that the life experiences of persons in rural communities can be very relevant to the different pathways through which one can engage in the global arena. This is an important insight that we should consider in our roles here at UAPB, a land-grant institution.”