For Diana Acosta ’06, ’07, helping others isn’t just her passion, it’s her life’s work.
As Deputy Division Chief of the Empowerment and Inclusion Division at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Diana advocates for marginalized populations around the world to ensure they have access to quality and equitable social services and their human rights are protected and promoted.
And although Diana has always had a desire to help others, it was the help she received from Stony Brook that made all the difference in charting a course for her life. As a student, she quickly learned the importance of community, finding support in a dedicated network of mentors and professors. After facing some challenges with her chosen course of study, she sought guidance from her mentors, who helped her find a way to marry her love of healthcare with her desire to help others. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in health science and a master’s degree in public policy, Diana has found a more fulfilling — and wildly successful — career than she ever could have imagined.
Acosta’s work has not gone unnoticed. This year, she was named a “2020 Latino National Security & Foreign Policy Next Generation Leader” by The Diversity in National Security Network and New America.
Tell us about your journey from Stony Brook University to your current role at USAID.
I was one of those extremely driven and involved students at Stony Brook. From being an RA to student government president, I made a real effort to connect with my fellow students, build school spirit and develop relationships with lifetime mentors — and, ultimately, I found my career path. As graduation inched closer, my mentor pointed me in the direction of an incredible fellowship program with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute that introduced me to more professional opportunities and truly was life-changing. Since then, I’ve held positions at the NYC Office of the Public Advocate, Montefiore Medical Center, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Pan American Health Organization/WHO. I’ve been a diplomat with USAID for close to a decade and have been stationed in Honduras, South Africa, Afghanistan, Jamaica and now at headquarters in Washington D.C. It has been quite an adventure!
You mentioned your mentors at Stony Brook. How did they support you along the way?
There were so many professors, friends and supervisors who became mentors and helped me on my journey. I am forever grateful to each of them. I owe a particularly large debt of gratitude to Student Affairs Dean Emeritus Jerrold Stein, PhD and Al DeVries, director of Stony Brook’s residential housing administration. They were my sounding boards during life-changing decisions. They have provided me with shoulders to cry on and have been my cheerleaders, first as I navigated my way at Stony Brook and continuing throughout my career. I cannot imagine what my life would be like today without their unconditional love and guidance. Their pictures are in my personal dictionary next to the word “mentor.”
What are some of the challenges you faced?
When I first arrived at Stony Brook, I wanted to continue to nurture my love of medicine that started with a nursing program I had completed at DeWitt Clinton and Montefiore Medical Center. My ultimate goal was to pursue a career as a pediatrician. Organic chemistry — or as I call it, the “pre-med Hunger Games” — said NOPE. Instead of wallowing in sorrow, I shifted quickly and sought guidance from professors and mentors in my search for a new career path. Thankfully, I found the wonderful world of public health, which allowed me to work on disease prevention and help thousands all over the world gain quality and equitable health services. Even though becoming a pediatrician wasn’t in the cards for me, I’ve fulfilled my passion for serving this community in other ways. I’m very proud that I didn’t let a setback derail me completely. I took the lemons life gave me, threw them back, and got mangoes instead.
Can you tell us more about your role at USAID?
As a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), I work at the intersection of global health and human rights. I help to reinforce the capacities of communities, civil society and governments to provide quality social services and protect and promote the human rights of populations traditionally absent from decision-making in international development. My Division coordinates U.S. government initiatives addressing the mental health and psychosocial needs of survivors of torture and trauma, physical rehabilitation services for civilian victims of war and conflict, increased global access to innovative assistive health technologies, advancing the rights of persons with disabilities and protecting at-risk children in more than 70 countries.
What has been your most interesting career moment?
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work with an incredible team in Afghanistan to ensure U.S. government peace and stability efforts converged with our investments in public health. We embarked on a year-long effort to bring together dozens of community leaders, government stakeholders and Afghan medical champions to gather ideas on how to move the needle on lagging health outcomes. In one session, we gathered more than 60 female doctors, midwives and nurses from all corners of the country. Many of those women noted that this was the first time in their professional careers they had been genuinely consulted or included in the decision-making process. The poignant and innovative ideas shared during that session became a catalyst for our joint project design that, today, is making great strides to ensure every Afghan man, woman and child has access to quality healthcare. This example really touches on the core of my USAID career — ensuring that local communities are the driving force of sustainable development.
What inspires you most in your work?
By far, being witness to and supporting the amazing achievements of civil society leaders worldwide — from community leaders in Ecuador ensuring access to employment and economic opportunities for persons with disabilities, to grandmothers-turned-healthcare-workers in Lesotho, going door-to-door educating pregnant women on HIV prevention methods. They are the real heroes and inspire me every single day.
How has your job evolved in light of a global pandemic?
If there’s anything 2020 has taught me, it’s that being nimble and flexible is key. Although I am working full-time from home, it hasn’t slowed or derailed my resolve to promote and protect the human rights of often-marginalized populations. I’m just as motivated to work with local leaders and governments to increase access to lifesaving health services. Interestingly, now we collaborate, monitor, evaluate and adapt at a much quicker pace. A post-COVID world will be different, but adjusting to the “new normal” should not diminish our collective goal of ending poverty and fighting inequalities.
You were recently named a “2020 Latino National Security & Foreign Policy Next Generation Leader,” what does that mean to you?
I am truly humbled to be recognized among my colleagues. And I owe this honor to the love and unwavering support of my friends and amazing family in the United States, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. My achievements are a direct result of that outpouring of love and a relentless pursuit of our unique version of the American dream.
Nonetheless, it is crucial to emphasize that the leadership and enduring contributions of Black, Indigenous people and people of color (BIPOC) in the United States are vital in all aspects of our society, not just in foreign policy and national security. Our diversity is what makes us a stronger nation.
How did your experiences at Stony Brook prepare you for your career and for life in general?
My Stony Brook bachelor’s and master’s degrees gave me a strong foundation for my career in foreign affairs and global health. I’ve used the knowledge gained in the classroom to build my technical competencies, and in turn, to be effective in designing, implementing and evaluating international development projects. I deeply cherish the mentors I gained, the lifelong friendships I built and the great memories of cramming for exams at Roth Quad, Tuesdays at The Bench, or running to catch the Friday night train home to the Bronx.
What advice would you give to students looking to follow in your footsteps?
For those interested in foreign affairs, human rights and global health: internships, fellowships and/or the Peace Corps are your best starting point when you are fresh out of college or graduate school. They not only give you a wonderful opportunity to gain valuable experience, but they may also help you find your niche in such a vast field.
For women and people of color, beware of “impostor syndrome.” It’s real! Find healthy ways to silence that nagging voice in your head that’s making you feel unworthy of your accomplishments. YOU belong in that leadership position. YOU are qualified for that job. YOU are enough. Rinse and repeat.