Susan HIGINBOTHAM Holcombe, Ph.D. '58, Humanitarian

Susan HIGINBOTHAM Holcombe, Ph.D. ’58 has had a long and illustrious career in international affairs and sustainable development. A former program director for Oxfam America, Susan served in program management positions with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Fiji, Sudan, and China as well as in the New York headquarters. She has also participated in or led field evaluations and assessments for the Ford Foundation, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UNFPA, UNICEF, UNDP, World Bank, and the University of the South Pacific. A professor emerita at Brandeis University, Susan taught a range of courses in The Heller School for Policy and Management and is currently working on a book, tentatively titled Practicing Development for Sustainable Change. A global changemaker who traveled the world to improve people’s health, education, and opportunities, Susan reflects on her work overseas, her time at Ellis, and shares advice for current students.
Years at Ellis:Grade 7 to Grade 12
Occupation:Professor Emerita at Brandeis University
Education:B.A. Political Science, Mount Holyoke College; M.P.I.A. International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh; Ph.D. Public Administration, New York University

How did you get started in international development? Did your education and time at The Ellis School influence this career path?

Much of my career, at least since 1975, has been in sustainable development assistance with United Nations organizations and Oxfam America. I worked to help people living in poverty change their capacities through things like improvements in health and education, and the promotion of girls’ and women’s rights and opportunities. The seeds of my interest in international affairs were planted when I was at Ellis, though it took some years before I turned to international development work. A key influence was the Ellis Guild club and the annual Ellis Fair. Implicit in these activities was the assumption that students had a responsibility for engagement with the larger world. These experiences and my history classes deepened my interest in international affairs. It was only later that my exposure and circumstances led to my involvement in international development.

What is a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most meaningful in your career?
A story from my South Pacific experience reflects an approach I thought to be important in my work. In March of 1981, Cyclone Isaac wreaked substantial damage to the housing and agriculture of the island nation of Tonga. Normal post-cyclone relief measures bring in outside food to sustain the population. Tonga, like many South Pacific countries, had been experiencing a deterioration of diets as they ate more and more highly processed and imported foods. At UNICEF, we decided it was important to stress the value of traditional and locally grown foods, and for very little money launched a program that distributed seed packets to households. We worked with women and encouraged the planting of fast maturing, nutritious vegetables. This approach was later replicated with women and households in Kordofan, Sudan.

Do you have a mentor? How has that relationship benefited you professionally? Can you tell me about him or her?
Having mentors is extremely valuable. Probably the best mentor I had was Sharon Capeling-Alakija who was Director of UNIFEM between 1989 and 1994. It was not simply that she freely gave good advice and supported women inside and outside the UN system, she also modeled good management practices. She believed in people and did not rush to judgment. She listened. She was strategic about putting issues on the agenda and moving to action.

We often talk about girls using their voice at The Ellis School, what does that mean to you? How do you use your voice? And how did you gain the agency to do so?
Using one’s voice and having agency implies being able to speak out and to be heard on issues of importance. To have voice and agency requires having the evidence to support a perspective and having the communication skills to be able to convey that perspective to the audience. I have used writing as a way of formulating my thinking. With a co-editor I am working on a book, tentatively titled Practicing Development for Sustainable Change, to be published by Lynne Rienner Inc. in 2019.

How did your Ellis education influence and guide you after graduation?
It was a strong intellectual education, and it also gave me the confidence to believe in myself and try new things. I remain a believer an all-girls education. It allows time for each young woman to develop intellectually and socially.

What is your best memory of Ellis?
“Best” is difficult as there are many memories. I remember how so many teachers went out of their way to push our thinking and to challenge us. Ms. Buckmaster made Shakespeare come alive. Ms. Band was also a superb English and history teacher. Ms. Thornton argued politics and made me rethink assumptions. Ms. Hasson was uncanny in the ways she supported students and helped out when we needed. But I also remember athletics, the power of team spirit and working together, and learning the importance of being active.

How do you spend your free time?
Reading, exercising at the gym, kayaking on Cape Cod, bicycling.

How would you describe yourself in three words?
Optimistic. Engaged but Introverted.

What is the last book you read?
I am currently reading Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas

What is the most important lesson you learned at Ellis?
Believe in yourself; you can do it.