"Forever Changed" on Streets of Calcutta
When she was 5 years old, Dr. Deborah Alexander stuffed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into a handkerchief and set out on foot. It was her first big adventure. Destination: China.
Her trip ended within minutes, of course, but what a prophetic little journey it was.
Fast-forward approximately 15 years, and there she was, by now an EKU sophomore social work major, boarding a plane — her very first flight — at the Lexington airport, with luggage given to her by a caring faculty member. Fulbright Scholarship in hand, not to mention a paper bag of other necessities, she was headed to India and an internship working alongside none other than Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity.
Thirty-six hours later, this first-generation college student was standing on a runway at the Old Delhi airport. “Just me and a cow.”
But that memory, vivid as it is, pales next to her experiences the next few months with Mother Teresa.
“My first impression was how frail-looking and wrinkled she was,” Dr. Alexander, ’77, wrote recently on Facebook. “Mother Teresa assigned me to drive an old woodie station wagon through the streets of Calcutta each morning, gathering those forgotten and alone souls, dead and dying. Eventually, I understood that I was to be Mother’s hands of love and comfort for my passengers’ final hours.
“It has taken decades to understand how I was forever changed in those weeks,” she added. “Every day was packed with a chaos of sight, sound and feeling. I can close my eyes and still remember Mother Teresa’s small, wrinkled hands in mine as we said goodbye.”
Building upon the lessons she learned during that “springboard” experience in India, Dr. Alexander went on to a long and distinguished career with the U.S. Department of State, often serving as a field program manager with oversight of democratization initiatives designed to stabilize communities, restart government services, and rebuild institutions in crisis-ridden and war-ravaged countries.
She became one of the department’s longest-serving officers in Afghanistan, where she labored approximately a decade, long enough to survive three road attacks. Her work also took her to dozens of other countries, especially in eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Stops included Russia, Siberia, Belarus, Ukraine, Malta, Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Romania, Slovakia, Croatia, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia, Somalia and South Africa. On some occasions, she was overseeing elections, and helping to develop citizenship skills and political participation among the local people; other visits were security-related. Sometimes, she lived in tents or mud huts alongside soldiers. Often, she was rubbing shoulders with heads of state and military leaders worldwide.
Dr. Alexander in the far reaches of the Kandahar Province, where she regularly met with children, teachers, women, elders and others. The people pictured here were surprised and amused, as they hadn’t seen an American woman for many years.
Wherever she landed, it was typically her job to build proverbial bridges of understanding and goodwill. It wasn’t that much different from navigating the streets of Calcutta.
“I have learned that we are more similar than we are different,” said Dr. Alexander, whose family roots are in Madison, Jackson and Estill counties. “Whether it’s Big Hill, Kentucky, or Afghanistan, people care about their children, especially when they’re sick, and they want good water, health care and schools. We must remember what we have in common and not let our differences define us.”
Dr. Alexander has been honored many times for her service: an Expeditionary Service Award, Superior Honor Award and Meritorious Honor Award from the State Department; a NATO Public Service Award; a Medal for Exceptional Public Service from the Office of the Secretary of Defense; and the Public Service Award from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, where she earned her master’s and doctoral degrees.
Today, she resides in a townhouse in her native Lexington, where, to no one’s surprise, she busies herself with volunteer work and philanthropic activities, including Sheppard’s Hands for female veterans and Habitat for Humanity, among many others.
And it all points back to her four years at EKU. “It was the beginning of my civic, political and global life (and) my focus on building and organizing communities,” she recalled. “I had professors who were so supportive and kind, and never made me feel embarrassed about coming from a working-class family. Through my coursework and my relationships with other students and professors, I began creating my path. It opened windows on the world that I never would have imagined.”
This article was also featured in the Spring 2017 issue of EKU Magazine.
Published on May 08, 2017