Jennifer Hawkins ’99 is the real deal. The St. Andrew’s graduate has spent more than a decade working in the U.S government, including the past seven-plus as a Senior Women, Peace, and Security Advisor at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). In her role she helps create and implement policies that impact women around the world. On June 11, she will be the commencement speaker as the Class of 2021 graduates from St. Andrew’s.
Hawkins earned her bachelor’s degree from Syracuse, her master’s degree from Howard, and her doctorate from University of Southern California — all in the field of social work. “I had a great experience at my 20th reunion and things have come full circle. I’m so happy to have this opportunity.”
Hawkins did not set out to change the world, although make no mistake, in her role at USAID, she is having a direct impact on women and girls around the globe. Things changed, though, when she was at Howard, working on her master’s in social work with a concentration in children and policy.
“I had no desire in undergrad to work in policy,” Hawkins said. “It wasn’t until my master’s when I was doing my practicum in social work on the micro level and I saw how hard it was to impact change for an individual or family. Yes, you can empower families and individuals but really it’s the blockages and systemic barriers on the policy level that keep people from getting the services they need.”
Hawkins’ professional career in government began at the State Department before she transitioned to USAID. In her current role, she enjoys bipartisan support for the work she does.
“This is one of the only things on the (Capitol Hill) that everyone agrees on,” Hawkins said. “Women, Peace, and Security is a foreign policy priority. It’s one of the things when you visit the Hill, no one is opposing this. It enjoys full bipartisan support.”
That support was evident in 2017 when Congress passed the Women, Peace, and Security Act. Prior to the pandemic, Hawkins would spend her days at the White House, or meeting with members and staff of Congress, or traveling overseas to conflict areas. The past year, that international travel has been curbed but Hawkins hasn’t slowed down, as she completed her doctorate.
“Completing my doctorate took my work a step further,” Hawkins said, “ There are so many great organizations doing amazing work, but there are gaps. My dissertation focused on how to disrupt the funding landscape for social impact and social justice organizations. Making those organizations, activists, and leaders household names and giving people the opportunity to donate directly to them. For example, if I want to contribute to a women’s organization in South Sudan, why can’t I? If I want to donate to an organization here, how do I do that? Giving people an equal playing field in the funding world.”
In her 11 years working in international relations, Hawkins has seen tremendous changes around the world. She points to places like Saudi Arabia, where women couldn’t drive or participate in sports and now are doing those things and running for office. “It starts very early with empowering young girls so they can see the opportunities,” Hawkins said. “After all, if you can’t see it you can’t be it.”
Perhaps when Hawkins stands in front of the 89 students in the Class of 2021, one of them will see themself in her, and their own possibilities for the future. Inspiring young women is a perk of a job that has taken her around the world.
“The most rewarding piece is knowing the impact you’ll have on lives and changing the trajectory for women and girls around the world,” Hawkins said. “My job becomes a lot more real when I’m in the field, in country — seeing and touching and reaching out directly to the beneficiaries. I appreciate that side so much.”