Theresa Betancourt, an internationally known advocate for child health and human rights, will deliver the spring commencement address at Linfield College. The ceremony will occur Sunday, June 2, at 10 a.m. in the Oak Grove on campus.
A Linfield summa cum laude graduate, Betancourt now directs the Research Program on Children and Global Adversity at Harvard University. The center works to protect and promote the rights and wellbeing of children and their families in developing countries, through research, teaching, advocacy and targeted action.
In addition to her directorship and professorship at Harvard, Betancourt teaches at the Center for International Health and Development at Boston University and serves as an associated scientist in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Children’s Hospital in Boston.
Betancourt grew up in rural Alaska in an indigenous village with no paved roads, and with parents who had made social justice their mission. Her mother established an early-childhood center, flying bush planes to remote villages to help children, and her father, a former Peace Corps volunteer, taught primarily Yup’ik children. The experience shaped Betancourt for life, giving her a respect for other cultures and a sense of familiarity with conditions in the developing world.
She began working with disadvantaged children while she was still a student at Linfield, helping refugee families as part of a work study project. She later served as a senior intern for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and consulted for the International Rescue Committee, designing education programs for use in refugee camps.
Betancourt now works with Partners in Health and other international associations, directing long-term studies and developing intervention programs for children and families affected by armed conflicts, HIV/AIDs and other extreme circumstances. She develops and demonstrates models for governments, non-governmental organizations, charitable foundations and communities, aligning their efforts and increasing their effectiveness.
Betancourt has advocated for and helped thousands of homeless children in India, former child soldiers in Sierra Leone, Rwandan children and families affected by HIV/AIDS, and Eritrean Kunama refugees, among others.
The common thread in her research is documenting survival strategies. Betancourt studies how some children and families manage to recover from the trauma of war, homelessness, sickness and poverty, and develops tools that will enable other children to heal.
“People who have passion for this work can make a huge difference,” said Betancourt. “If your treatment for a parent can change the life trajectories of the whole family, you can accomplish something tremendous.”
Betancourt graduated from Linfield College with a degree in psychology and minors in French and international studies. She completed her doctoral work in maternal and child health with concentrations in psychiatric epidemiology and health and human rights at the Harvard School of Public Health. Like her parents before her, she involves her children in her outreach.
Betancourt received a Distinguished Alumna Award from Linfield College in 2010.