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Once in a Lifetime

Students Meet Liberian President

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Fourteen students in the Heinz College's Master of Science in Public Policy and Management (MSPPM) Washington, D.C., program recently had a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They met with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female elected as a head of state on the African continent.

It was an unprecedented chance for Carnegie Mellon students to speak with a sitting head of state about many of the issues being discussed in the class — including the transition from relief to development; the role of China in Africa as a developing country with a development agenda; and externally-driven development.

The students' professor, Carnegie Mellon's Jendayi Frazer, received the invitation for her class when President Sirleaf was in Washington. Professor Frazer was formerly the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs. She worked closely with President Sirleaf to end the war in Liberia and support the country's post-conflict development.

"Once the awestruck feeling subsided, I was amazed at President Sirleaf's willingness to have an open and frank discussion about Liberia, its development goals and how those are to be accomplished," said Heinz student Devon Halley (HNZ'09). "It would have been easy for her to stick to talking points or give vague, high-level responses to our questions. Instead, she gave very thoughtful, articulated answers that were really able to capture so many of the nuances of the African development puzzle."

Halley added, "I thought her insight on how Liberia can successfully leverage China's interest in African investment was especially intriguing."

Kendra Gaither, executive director for the university's Center for International Politics and Innovation, was grateful for President Sirleaf giving the students her time and perspective.

"President Sirleaf readily engaged with the students, thoughtfully answering their questions and even offering a few jokes," Gaither said.

During Professor Frazer's course, offered as part of the Heinz College program in Washington, D.C., the students have been looking at the different aspects and perspectives shaping the formation of development policy.

"Meeting with a sitting head of state is a rare and humbling opportunity," acknowledged Heinz student Justin Sosne (HNZ'09). "Yet due to my experience working at the State Department and learning about the theory and history underpinning international development from Ambassador Frazer, I felt prepared to have an earnest and intelligent exchange with the president."

Related Links: Heinz College DC  |  Frazer Joins Heinz Faculty  |  Heinz College

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