Counselor of the Foreign Service of the United States of America, Retired
body Heading link
As a girl growing up in the working class neighborhood of Jefferson Park on Chicago’s northwest side, Marilynn Schmidt, BSN ’68, dreamed of working internationally.
Nursing would be her passport, taking her on assignments to Zaire, Egypt, the former Soviet Union and Serbia.
“I knew early on that there was a big world out there, and I wanted to take every opportunity to learn more about other cultures,” she says.
As a student at the UIC College of Nursing in the late 1960s, Schmidt recalls getting a strong background in basic science, clinical nursing and research. Between her junior and senior year, she participated in the Commissioned Officer Service Training and Externship Program (COSTEP), a program through the U.S. Public Health Service to train future public health leaders. There, she met Mary Lee Mills, a nurse and midwife who had done extensive international work. She encouraged Schmidt to pursue midwifery.
Schmidt took Mills’ advice and got her master’s degree from Yale University, with a specialty in maternal newborn health and a certificate in nurse-midwifery. Her first job as a midwife was with the New York City health department’s Maternal Infant Care Family Planning Program. She became assistant director and got her first global assignment, spending three months establishing clinics in rural Zaire.
After leading the nurse-midwifery program at Georgetown University and working on a project at the University of Hawaii, she took a position with USAID, the international development arm of the U.S. government, where she would work for almost 30 years, from 1982 to 2011.
Her time in the foreign service took her to Egypt, where she led a $60 million family planning and reproductive health program, and to central Asia, where she worked on major healthcare reform and other programs with the five “stans”—Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan—former Soviet Union states that were newly independent.
Next, she led health programming, social sector and pension reform on a four-year regional mission to Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus. She came back to Washington, D.C., to head the office of European country affairs, and finished her career as deputy mission director in Serbia and Montenegro.
Upon retirement in 2011, she was awarded the Administrator’s Distinguished Career Service Award, USAID’s highest award. Since then, she has consulted on missions in Tajikistan and Egypt.
Schmidt says nursing set her up for success on an international stage because it gave her critical thinking, problem solving, leadership and management skills.
“I spent a lot of my career designing new programs and getting teams to work together,” she says. “The team approach, and the interdisciplinary approach, were skills that I practiced and honed in nursing and midwifery.”