Growing up in the 1950s in a segregated neighborhood on Chicago’s southside, UW alumnus Aaron Williams, MBA ’73 was influenced early on to consider possibilities beyond his working-class neighborhood and even the borders of the U.S. However, even the imagination of a young boy could not have dreamed up the path he would travel, ultimately creating connections across cultures and a tremendous impact across international boundaries.
Williams’ distinguished career in public service has seen him assume leadership roles across some of our nation’s critical agencies for furthering global cooperation, development and peace. He served as a senior official at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), where he reached the rank of career minister in the Senior Foreign Service. Appointed by President Barack Obama, Williams served as director of the U.S. Peace Corps, from 2009–2012. His time with these organizations included historic milestones, becoming the first African-American to serve as USAID’s executive secretary, and the first African-American male to be appointed to lead the Peace Corps.
On November 15, 2021, 6–7 p.m., Williams will deliver the keynote lecture for International Education Week. During the event, Williams will share formative experiences from his youth and defining accomplishments throughout his career, providing inspiration for the next generation who seek to lead on the world stage. He will also read excerpts from his newly released memoir, “A Life Unimagined: The Rewards of Mission-Driven Service in the Peace Corps and Beyond.” The virtual event is free and open to the public.
Moderating the event will be Ambassador Rick Barton. Barton also has a strong history of global leadership, having served as assistant secretary of state for conflict and stabilization operations at the U.S. Department of State and as U.S. ambassador to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. Barton has several familial connections to UW–Madison, with his wife, daughter, father-in-law, nephew, grandmother and great aunt all having received degrees from the university.
Information on the event can be found at international.wisc.edu/a-life-unimagined. An in-person location is being planned for those wanting to gather to view the event. More information will be added to the event webpage.
University of Wisconsin–Madison’s International Division published “A Life Unimagined” in recognition of Peace Corps 60th anniversary and the longstanding partnership between UW–Madison and the agency. Individuals who donate $100 or more to International Division funds at the Wisconsin Foundation & Alumni Association between International Education Week and Peace Corps Week (November 15, 2021 to March 1, 2022) will receive a signed copy of the work.
About A Life Unimagined
Aaron Williams has devoted his life to public service and the betterment of others. His life story reveals fascinating glimpses into the complex interactions of international development and U.S. foreign policy but also into the American myth of the power of hard work, determination, and drive.
The remarkable journey of this leader in international development, foreign policy, and global business began on Chicago’s South Side. He attended Catholic and public schools, participated in the Boys Club and Boy Scouts, and read science fiction books at the Chicago Public Library. A graduate of Chicago State University and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he left Chicago to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic.
Finding his time there transformative, he turned his energies in this direction, joining the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and working on projects in Honduras, Haiti, Costa Rica, the Caribbean region and South Africa. There, he eventually reached the rank of career minister in the Foreign Service. In 2009, he was appointed director of the Peace Corps by President Barack Obama, serving in that role through 2012.
In his memoir, Williams shares life lessons of how success often comes from failure; that a willingness to take risks is necessary to move forward; the importance of listening to your intuition when it comes to critical professional and life decisions; and how what you think you’re looking for may not be what you ultimately find to be the most important thing in your life.
What people are saying about “A Life Unimagined”
As U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, I observed Aaron’s innovative leadership as the head of USAID in South Africa, where he played a key role in the creative use of American aid in the development of the new democracy, and he continued to demonstrate this dynamic leadership as a global business executive, and as the director of the U.S. Peace Corps in the Obama administration. His story should serve as an inspiration to young people who intend to follow their dream.
~Ambassador James A. Joseph, Under Secretary for the Department of the Interior 1977–1981, U.S. Ambassador to South Africa 1995–1999