Indiana State University Newsroom

Indiana State grad shares experiences as U.S. ambassador with students

January 21, 2015

When one hears that Cynthia Shepard Perry left college to marry and start a family, it's easy to assume she might not return to Indiana State University and complete her degree.

But Perry, 86, a former U.S. Ambassador to Sierra Leone and Burundi, explained to a group that included students in Ruth Fairbanks' WS 301 Gender, Nation and Class course at Cunningham Memorial Library during a recent campus visit that she had too much tenacity not to obtain the degree that would get her one step closer to achieving a goal she'd had since age 16 - to become a U.S. ambassador.

"I consider myself a citizen of the world and that allows me to live anywhere and make a change," Perry said, adding that her vision to plan ahead helped her to live out her dream. "I'm proof that it is important to set long-term goals. I'm not talking 10 or 15 years. I'm talking lifetime goals."

Perry grew up in Lost Creek Township as one of nine children. She graduated in 1946 from Otter Creek High School, where her dream of becoming an ambassador took off with support from her high school principal, Herb Lamb, who helped her devise a 25-year plan to get there.Perry enrolled at Indiana State after high school, majoring in art. But because of limited family income, she decided to leave school after completing one semester to get married.

Ten years later, the mother of six returned to Indiana State on a scholarship for part-time study and changed her major to political science. Perry graduated from Indiana State in 1967 with a bachelor's degree and in 1972 earned a doctorate in international education from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where she was director of the National Teachers Corps (1968-71).


From 1971-82, Perry held faculty and senior staff positions at Texas Southern University in Houston intermittently with her diplomatic service, including as director of Teacher Corps/Peace Corps for Africa, dean of international student affairs, professor of education and honorary consul for Senegal.

Perry took leave from Texas Southern in 1973 to serve as in-country trainer for Peace Corps Kenya and advisor to the U.S. Information Service in Kenya, Nigeria and Zambia (1974-76). She also served as staff development officer for the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (1976-78).

After serving four years as the USAID's chief of education and human resources division for Africa in Washington, D.C. (1982-86) and on what was the 25th year of the plan she and her high school principal devised, Perry got her big break. President Ronald Reagan appointed her ambassador to Sierra Leone (1986-89) and his successor, President George H.W. Bush, appointed her ambassador to Burundi (1989-93).

All of her experiences allowed her to pass on valuable advice, like don't burn bridges and establish a life plan, Perry said.

"It was Indiana State that gave me the basic knowledge I needed to move forward with my goal of becoming a U.S. ambassador," Perry told the group. "The campus is different than the last time I was here, but the atmosphere for learning still exists. You are in the right place to take the first steps, or the next steps, toward whatever goals you have set for yourself."

Her experiences as ambassador didn't come without issues regarding her race and gender, though.

"Because I am black and I am a woman, there were people in the countries where I served who saw my appointment as ambassador to their country as the U.S. saying they weren't good enough to have a male ambassador," Perry said. "But I was understanding, helpful and did a lot for the countries I worked in and that helped me get ahead in my career and receive a second ambassadorship."

Perry is also a great ambassador for what Indiana State graduates are doing around the world,Fairbanks said.

"We were lucky to get her to come and speak, and we'll revisit many of the themes she discussed as the semester progresses," she said. "It's interesting to see what Indiana State graduates, like Cynthia Shepard Perry, have accomplished and the extraordinary things they've done since graduating."

Following Bill Clinton's election in 1992, Perry returned to Houston but would be back in the nation's capital when she was tapped by President George W. Bush to serve as U.S. executive director (ambassador level) of the African Development Bank in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire (2001-07), a position she held until her retirement at age 79.

Since her retirement to the Houston suburb of Manvel, Perry has remained active in world affairs as Honorary Consul General of Rwanda.

Listening to Perry recount her life and the steps it took her to achieve her goals struck a chord with Alexus Randolph, a senior business management major from Fishers.

"Her theme of not giving up on your goals and making sure to always set goals for yourself really struck me," Randolph said.

During her return to campus, Perry also delivered a public speech on "The Power of Education and the obligation to Serve Humanity" and spoke at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Dinner.

Writer: Betsy Simon, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-7972 or