Undergraduate research lays groundwork for career in international development

by Jennifer Johnson,

  • Brooke Stearns Lawson ’99
    Brooke Stearns Lawson ’99
  • Stearns Lawson and her husband Jelani, right, met Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus after his appearance on 'Real Time with Bill Maher' in 2009.
    Stearns Lawson and her husband Jelani, right, met Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus after his appearance on 'Real Time with Bill Maher' in 2009.
  • Stearns Lawson in Zimbabwe in 2018.
    Stearns Lawson in Zimbabwe in 2018.

As conflict and crime advisor, alumna develops programs to counter violent extremism.

Undergraduate research in a foreign country is an opportunity that can’t be missed. No one knows this better than Brooke Stearns Lawson ’99, who went to great lengths to complete it — and set the course of her career as a result. 

In 1998, she flew to Senegal under the auspices of a Carson Undergraduate Research Grant to work on microfinance with the United Nations. Last-minute changes by the organization left the then-junior without an internship and job contact the week before she arrived. 

She showed up anyway. She found a local Senegalese organization where she could do similar research, and after repeatedly offering work, it allowed her to interview microfinance borrowers to gauge whether the loans were benefiting the community. 

The experience was all she needed to embark on a 20-year-plus career in international development. Working extensively in Africa, she has worked with the local community to help develop programs to counter organized crime and violent extremism, partnered in designing governance programs for countries like Afghanistan and met with influential leaders such as microfinance pioneer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus

As senior conflict and crime advisor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Africa Bureau, her job is one of the best ways to strengthen fragile countries, she said. 

“It’s so important to promote peace and security,” she said. “It’s very hard to have development in conflict-affected or highly traumatized societies without it.” 

Aiming to be a ‘good global citizen’

Willamette University was a clear fit for Stearns Lawson, who discovered international studies satisfied her global interests while the university’s connection to the state capital fed her political ones. 

“Willamette was fundamental in forming who I am, and it shaped how I wanted to make a difference in the world,” she said. 

She also found more than an opportunity to study abroad in France, learn about politics at American University in Washington, D.C., and complete professional-level research — she met mentors she remains in contact with to this day.

Amiko Matsumoto, former Community Service Office director, and Mary Tolar, who supervised Stearns Lawson in the Student Academic Grants and Awards office, taught her how to effectively find opportunities to be a “good global citizen” and mentored her on applications, she said.

Under their guidance, she found her passion for microfinance. This led to her first post-graduate job at the Grameen Foundation USA, an affiliate of the Grameen Bank microfinance model founded by Yunus, a scholarship that supported her microfinance work in a South African rural town, a Rotary World Peace Fellowship and other achievements. They embody Willamette’s motto and cultivated her passion and direction for how she wanted to be of service, she said.

“Their mentorship helped me see not only where I wanted to go, but also the resources that could help me on that journey,” she said. 

Assisting the Obama administration

As Stearns Lawson moved into progressively higher development roles and achieved a doctoral fellowship at global think tank and research organization RAND Corporation in L.A., the majority of her energy and career focused on USAID’s Africa Bureau.

She first joined USAID in 2002, spending one year as a bureau research associate, then returned in 2010. It was a crucial time — that year, Congress passed the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, which helped Central African communities who were brutalized by the armed group led by Joseph Kony.

The biggest part of her job was helping develop the Obama administration’s strategy to mitigate and eliminate the threat to civilians posed by the LRA. She also assisted the USAID Missions in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, designing programs that built community resilience to violence and instability, supported the reintegration of former combatants into their communities and in trauma healing.

And it’s just one example of her complex, multifaceted job. When she isn’t attending national security meetings, providing technical assistance for American embassy personnel worldwide and working with companies like Google and Apple to promote responsible mineral trade, she’s likely in Africa for interviews or research. She wouldn’t have it any other way.  

“It’s fulfilling,” she said. “There’s a lot of opportunity working at USAID to shape how the U.S. engages with other countries in a meaningful way to really improve the lives of others.” 

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