UF grad appointed ambassador to Panama

Published: Monday, January 12, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 12, 2009 at 12:02 a.m.

During her 1976 valedictory speech at Wildwood High School, Barbara Stephenson quoted a passage from "Walden Pond" by Henry David Thoreau: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."

Stephenson, a Wildwood native, had not imagined that her drummer would lead her to a job in the Foreign Service, or to postings in Ireland, South Africa and Curacao. She had not considered such a path until a comparative politics professor at the University of Florida suggested it.

But this past summer, Stephenson earned her highest calling yet when President George W. Bush appointed her ambassador to Panama.

Stephenson was sworn in as ambassador July 10. Since then, she has been working to develop regional solutions to problems such as organized crime and drug trafficking through an initiative that will provide compatible computer systems with common databases for neighboring Central American countries.

She also convened a working group with members from the military, customs and border control and the Drug Enforcement Administration, and is working to provide skills training in community policing.

In addition, Stephenson is hoping Congress passes a free trade agreement between the U.S. and Panama that would support her work. She said Panama is an important partner with the U.S. and called it a third border because of the Panama Canal, a global hub for the transportation of goods, services and people, but also a liability in the War on Terror.

Besides security concerns, Stephenson will work with the Panamanians to ensure the country enjoys lasting economic growth, and that growth reaches all Panamanians.

Panama grew by more than 11 percent last year, and maintains an 8 percent growth rate this year, despite a global economic contraction, she said.

"That (growth) holds a lot of promise and opportunity, but one of the things it's also brought is a widening gap between rich and poor," Stephenson said.

Stephenson earned exemplary grades at Wildwood Elementary, Middle and High schools, and followed in the footsteps of her high school English teacher, Roslyn Davidson, by studying English at UF.

"My biggest dream was to graduate with honors from the University of Florida with a bachelor's of English," Stephenson said.

Stephenson then earned a master's degree and a doctorate. She credits her grade school teachers for encouraging her to go to college.

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