Vice Provost for Global Affairs and Chief Global Officer, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill; U.S. Ambassador to Panama (2008-2010)
Ambassador Barbara Stephenson (Ret.)
About the Speaker
During a diplomatic career spanning more than three decades, Barbara Stephenson served repeatedly at American embassies in Latin America. She began her career in 1986 in Panama, with responsibility for human rights and counter-narcotics efforts during the regime of General Manuel Antonio Noriega. She volunteered for war duty in El Salvador, working to support both democratic elections and the peace talks that brought an end to El Salvador’s 12-year civil war. She returned to the region in 1998 as Consul General and chief of mission at the American Consulate General in Curacao, where she helped established small US Air Force bases to support Plan Colombia. Ten years later, she returned to Panama as U.S. ambassador, where she worked to finalize the U.S.-Panama Free Trade Agreement and collaborated closely with the government of Panama to arrest a dramatic rise in drug trafficking and associated crime.
Her lifelong interest in Latin America began in the University of Florida’s Latin American studies department. She studied abroad at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, Colombia, making serious strides in her quest to become a fluent Spanish speaker. She ultimately earned BA, MA, and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Florida.
Her work as an American Foreign Service officer also included three years as Consul General in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where she worked to consolidate support for implementing the Good Friday Agreement designed to address the issues that led to “the Troubles.” She also served three years in London as the senior career American diplomat providing leadership at America’s largest embassy in Europe—the first woman to hold that coveted position. In addition, her work delivering the “civilian surge” as Deputy Coordinator for Iraq earned her a Distinguished Honor Award, one of the highest awards given by the Department of State.
As Dean of the Leadership and Management School at the Foreign Service Institute, she trained new ambassadors and other senior leaders in the foreign affairs community, as well as launching a State Department-wide “Culture of Leadership” initiative which continues to bear fruit. For the past four years, she has served as president of the American Foreign Service Association, elected by her fellow diplomats to be the “voice of the Foreign Service.” In that role, she worked closely with members of Congress to preserve funding for America’s diplomatic capability and appeared regularly in the media, including the Washington Post, New York Times, the Rachel Maddow Show, Foreign Policy, and the PBS Newshour. In September of this year, she was appointed Vice Provost for Global Affairs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.