Headshot of Mary Ann Peters.

Mary Ann Peters

U.S. Ambassador (Ret.) and CEO, The Carter Center

After spending a summer in France in high school, Mary Ann Peters knew she had to return. Immersing herself in France as a junior at Santa Clara University, Mary Ann developed a sense of adventure as well as cross-cultural communication skills that impacted her decision to join the U.S. State Department. Today, following 30 years as a career diplomat, including serving as U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh from 2000-2003, Mary Ann is still making a difference. As CEO of The Carter Center, Mary Ann oversees health and peace initiatives in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia. Read on to see how study abroad impacted Mary Ann’s career path and why she believes study abroad is more important than ever.

IES Abroad: As a student at Santa Clara University, what led you to study abroad in Paris?

Ambassador Mary Ann Peters: One of the nice things about Santa Clara was that such a large percentage of every class studied abroad – about 17% or 18%, as I recall. So, it was something that everybody thought about. In high school, I had the opportunity – made possible by a wonderful nun who taught me French, and then got me a partial scholarship – to study one summer in France. I was in the Loire Valley for three weeks and in Brittany for three weeks. It was heaven, and I was sold! Then Santa Clara University made it so easy for me to go back.

IES Abroad: What one-on-one conversations, either with your Paris homestay family, IES professors, or with other French nationals in 1970-71 have left the biggest impression on you?

MAP: I remember one dinner with our family in the 16th arrondissement. My roommate and I lived with a couple, M and Mme de Cenival. Monsieur de Cenival had roots in Normandy and his wife was studying to be a dentist. They had a dog – a real “chien mechant” who never seemed to remember that I lived there! During one dinner, either Laura or I used the word degueulasse – disgusting or revolting. Monsieur gave us a lecture about the fact that that word should not be used in polite conversation. We learned that the word for revolting was itself revolting! I also remember a conversation with a German student at the Institut d’Études Politiques, or “Sciences Po,” where I took courses. He spoke no English and at that time I spoke no German. The only way we could converse was in French. So, over coffee, he told me what it was like to travel around Europe as a German in the aftermath of WWII. He was regularly insulted and not welcomed anywhere. As an American, we were welcomed almost everywhere. This was a shock to me and gave me such insight into what it must have been like to walk in his shoes.

IES Abroad: You spent more than 30 years as a career diplomat with the U.S. Department of State, including serving as U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh from 2000-2003. How did study abroad influence your career path?

MAP: For those of us at Santa Clara who decided to study abroad, the decision to go and the experience itself gave us unbelievable confidence. We were the ones who took the step into the unfamiliar. Simply by getting on the plane you differentiated yourself and made yourself the confident person you wanted to become. There was a great sense of adventure that colored that entire year. Immersion in another culture gave me a taste for what they now call cross-cultural communication. It gave me a taste for the daily excitement of noticing differences—big and small—as you walked down the street, ordered a meal, conversed with people, or visited their homes. The art and culture I learned were eye-opening, and I began to understand how influential art can be. And then there was the language, the sheer joy of being able to speak to people in their native language and read their literature without a filter. It is a huge privilege to be able to do that.

IES Abroad: How did you decide to take the U.S. State Department test?

MAP: After my year in Paris, I chose a graduate school program that allowed me to study a year in Italy through the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. I returned to Washington for the second year of the program, where it was more or less expected that SAIS students would take the Foreign Service exam—and most of us did. I was one of the lucky ones who passed and that would seal my fate.

IES Abroad: IES Abroad’s newest marketing tag line is “Save the World | Study Abroad.” At this volatile time in history and with today’s complexity of international relations, in what ways can U.S. college students studying abroad improve our diplomatic relationships? 

MAP: I love that slogan! I couldn’t feel more strongly about this. Study abroad is an eye-opening experience on both an individual and cultural level. On the individual level, you gain the confidence from losing the fear of the strange. Fear of the strange, the “other,” is plaguing our world right now. Anything students can do to prepare themselves to act not out of fear, but rather from confidence, vision, and strength can indeed help save the world. Study abroad is one of the best things students can do to allow themselves to live an empowered life, rather than one filled with fear of the unknown.

IES Abroad: Having perceived the world from so many vistas, in what fields would you most like to see U.S. college graduates apply their skills?

MAP: I would like to see more students going into economics. Although it is not a hard science like physics, there are some basic mechanisms that govern how economies function that are opaque to people who haven’t taken the time to learn them. I would like to see many more young people educated in economics working to help solve the problems of poverty in the developing world. And I think as voters we all need to understand economics. Our current affluent standard of living is based on trade, but not many people realize that. There is so much ignorance around trade. I worry that people who are against free trade because they believe that trade costs jobs will create a wave of anti-trade sentiment that could result in another depression. Of course trade is an economic, not a moral, imperative. Trade creates wealth, but it is up to our society to make sure that wealth benefits all of us.

Another area where I would like to see more students studying is foreign languages. Computers may be able to tell you how to say “I want a beer” in Japanese, but computers cannot create in you the understanding that learning and communicating in a foreign language gives you. Being abroad, whether it be around the dinner table with your host family or in the classroom, makes you bring your A-game as a communicator. When you speak a foreign language, you are working hard at getting people to understand what you mean, so therefore, you look for analogies and the comparisons. This becomes a habit in your communication skills, and it really does boost your game.

IES Abroad: In your newest leadership role as CEO of The Carter Center, where do you see you and your team having the biggest impact internationally?

MAP: I am so happy to see that students have such a wide range of study abroad options today. When I was a student, study abroad in Africa, for instance, was not an option. But Africa is where The Carter Center has its biggest impact. We work in both the peace and health fields; in the peace field on conflict resolution, human rights and democracy and in the health field on neglected tropical diseases and mental health, especially in post-conflict areas. The Carter Center also has programs in Latin America, the Middle East and South Asia, but we are most engaged in Africa. For instance, in Liberia, President Jimmy Carter played an important role in the post-civil war peace process and the election that brought Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to power and since then we have we have several projects to try to cement the fragile democracy there, and to bring much needed mental health services to people who have suffered both civil war and the Ebola outbreak. 

One thing we do is work with traditional or customary tribal leaders to mediate disputes and bring some justice to people with grievances from the civil war. When Ebola broke out in Liberia, The Carter Center was able to play a vital role using our network of local leaders to mobilize and communicate to their tribal members the best practices for keeping Ebola from spreading. We are also working in Mali, Chad, Ethiopia, and South Sudan on the last phase of Guinea worm disease eradication. This effort is spearheaded by the Carter Center’s recently retired Vice President for Health, Dr. Donald Hopkins, IES Abroad Vienna 1957-58. Both our health and peace programs work at the community level and empower local people. Those networks of trust were invaluable during the Ebola outbreak.

IES Abroad: Why do you feel study abroad continues to be as important for college students today as it was when you studied abroad?

MAP: Study abroad is even more important today that it was back in the 1970s. The wave of globalization which has transformed our world had not begun in the 70s. Globalization is not something you do or don’t believe in. It is a fact – just like the economy. It is not a moral fact. People have to put the ethics into the reality. Students need to understand more about that reality, how other people live, and what the options are for living in a globalized world and making it sustainable. We do some things here in the U.S. very well, but we don’t do everything as well as it can be done. I’d like to see students go abroad, learn, and bring back the best of everything. Whether it is a way of saving water in your household or a way of moving away from using wood fires in Africa. These are the kinds of things that will energize students who study abroad.

IES Abroad: What advice do you have for students interested in studying or interning abroad today? 

MAP: Stay as long as you possibly can. Talk to your college about this. Maybe they can make an exception. De-enroll, re-enroll. Do whatever you have to do to get out there and study abroad for as long as possible.