Less than a week into Rajiv Shah’s term as administrator of the United States Agency for International Development in January 2010, a tragic earthquake struck Haiti. With little time to settle into his new role, Shah, a University alum, immediately began dispatching aid to help rebuild infrastructure and provide care for the struggling island nation.

On Friday morning, Shah spoke before an audience of about 200 people at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy on his experience at the USAID and his work to reform the agency. During his presentation, he encouraged students to join the effort and fielded questions from audience members about his tenure as USAID administrator.

The stop was one of many on a college tour that has also included visits to Clemson University, Florida International University and Mississippi State University. Shah has been promoting the USAID fall semester program that encourages students to volunteer their time, contribute ideas and even go abroad to support the organization.

In an interview before the event, Shah said it was especially exciting for him to return to his former college town. He added that the organization is seeking to recruit as many University students as possible, citing the creation of the Peace Corps on the steps of the Union as an example of the spirit of service embedded on campus. USAID was created in 1961 by an executive order issued by President John F. Kennedy to aid civilians overseas.

Shah noted that the structure of the University and the mindset of its students help lead students to careers in humanitarian aid.

“People that go to Michigan are go-getters,” he said. “You have to be because it’s such a big school, and that’s good training for life, especially in this work, because if you really want to make changes you have to be proactive you can’t be afraid of bureaucracy.”

Many of the attendees identified themselves as student activists with interests in pursuing humanitarian careers, or professors seeking to complement their activities at the University.

Andrew Haig, a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, said he attended the event to supplement his work in low resource countries.

“I’m trying to get a better sense of how the University can work with USAID in getting some of their objectives done,” he said. “There are so many things that we’re really good at, that they need help with. We have to find a way to connect.”

During the lecture, Shah cited examples of USAID successes, including partnerships with the University of Michigan in Jordan, and the advent of mobile banking in remote areas.

Shah said despite the 900 million people, including 170 million children, around the world who live in hunger, the future is not bleak. He noted that the innovation in the food industry, vaccination development and vitamin supplements are positively progressive and that he believes such methods will help end preventable child death by 2035.

“You might say governments are too hard to work for or too bureaucratic, or how are you going to reach children an hour away from a paved road?” he said before the event. “People said all of those things, but over the last few years we’ve seen the biggest decline in children dying under the age of 5, and a 50 percent reduction in child mortality.”

Shah offered South Korea as an example of the international benefits USAID can yield, namely in developing a trade relationship.

“If we want to be a vibrant economy in the future, we need to try to replicate that story, in fast-growing African countries, in fast-growing communities in Asia, and all around the world,” Shah said.

He added that without the aid, chaos in fast-growing countries generates ideal conditions for terrorist groups, such as the Taliban or al-Qaeda, to take power.

Shah said students interested in international aid should pursue an experience in the field, regardless of future career goals.

“It might work out and turn into a career or it might not,” he said. “But either way it will be deeply rewarding and I think you’ll learn something, as I did, about how diverse, multifaceted and connected our world is.”

Jaclyn Sylvain, LSA junior and president of ONE — an advocacy group that pursues solutions to poverty and disease in developing countries and co-sponsored the event — said in an interview after the event that she was pleasantly surprised with the turnout at the event.

“I was very nervous walking in because with crowd building you never know what’s going to happen,” she said. “But when I walked in, it was completely full and it made me so excited to see that there was such a huge presence on campus of people who are truly interested in this.”

She added that listening to Shah was inspiring and motivational for students seeking to serve others.

“It was nice to hear him speak and to listen to his call to arms for college students to get involved and be active,” she said. “I think it made people feel that if they want to change the world they have that power.”

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