Grace Clinton standing in a fallow field with livestock in the far distance.

Grace Clinton

Notre Dame’s first Samuel Huntington winner a constant advocate for women’s health

May 13, 2024

As a student in the Keough School of Global Affairs, Grace Clinton traveled to Botswana last summer to investigate postpartum care practices and education of young mothers in Kgalagadi, a largely poor and rural area of the country, as part of her capstone project in global affairs.

There, amid the dry, flat expanse of the Kalahari, Clinton imagined a facility devoted to “holistic female development” and co-founded the Kgalagadi Women’s Empowerment Centre, a nongovernmental organization that supports the social, political, and economic interests of women and children in the Kgalagadi region.

Now, with support from a $30,000 Samuel Huntington Public Service Award, Clinton will return to the area this summer to build an actual brick-and-mortar home for the center—while at the same time preparing for a master’s degree program in health and society at the University of Cambridge later this fall.

To start, the 360-square-foot center will offer skills training, postpartum care, and sex education for women and young girls. Older women will mentor younger women and girls, including pregnant teens. And staff will partner with educators and others to update health and sex education standards for local secondary students.

The center will cost about 250,000 Botswana pula to construct—or 18,500 US dollars based on the current exchange rate.

Clinton learned about the award over Easter break.

“I was so happy,” she said. “I can’t even begin to explain how much money this is, given the area in which we work. Most of the people we work with live on like $1 a day, so $30,000 is unfathomable.”

Grace Clinton sits in an open vehicle holding a camera. There are elephants in the background.
Grace Clinton poses with a herd of elephants in Chobe National Park in northern Botswana, near Victoria Falls, where she volunteered last summer with orphaned baby elephants. Botswana has the largest population of wild elephants in the world.

Located in the interior of the continent between Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Namibia, Botswana has the longest uninterrupted democracy in Africa, with an above-average human rights record and a robust economy based around tourism and diamond mining.

Still, like many of its neighbors in south and east Africa, the country, with a population of about 2.63 million, struggles with high rates of teen pregnancy, child marriage, gender-based violence, and HIV infection in adolescent girls—problems made all the worse by the pandemic.

Botswana is the sixth most unequal country by Gini coefficient, the most commonly used measure of inequality, Clinton said. Women bear the brunt of this inequality, she said, resulting in greater rates of poverty, malnutrition, and lack of education.

In response, the Kgalagadi Women’s Empowerment Centre will offer a space for women and girls to “come together and feel like they’re safe and heard,” Clinton said, while at the same time benefiting from programs designed to empower them to live better lives.

First presented in 1989, the Samuel Huntington Public Service Award offers graduating seniors $30,000 to pursue one year of public service anywhere in the world. It is a highly competitive award, given to just three or fewer students annually. Past recipients include McArthur “Geniuses,” Forbes 30 Under 30 honorees, and the current U.S. surgeon general.

With support from the Flatley Center for Undergraduate Scholarly Engagement (CUSE), Clinton, who will graduate next month with two degrees—global affairs and preprofessional (pre-med) studies—is the first Notre Dame student to win the award.

“Grace is an incredible public servant and leader, and it was my pleasure to work with her on this application,” said Elise Rudt-Moorthy, associate director of national fellowships for CUSE. “Every year, we have one or two applicants for this award, and Grace is our first student ever to receive it. Her work in Botswana is already improving the lives of women, and I know this funding will help her take that work to the next level.”

Clinton arrived at Notre Dame with the idea of pursuing a traditional career in medicine and “work(ing) in a lab all day.”

But after accepting an invitation from Yenupini Joyce Adams, assistant professor of the practice and global maternal research lead for the Eck Institute for Global Health, to participate in research around maternal health, she began to think seriously about the subject and its implications for global development.

Adams’s research is dedicated to improving postpartum health outcomes among women most impacted by maternal mortality—both in the United States and in sub-Saharan Africa, where the burden of maternal mortality is most severe.

Grace Clinton sits in a canoe in the river.
Grace Clinton rides in a traditional makoro, or hallowed canoe, in the Okavango Delta outside Maun in northern Botswana. She traveled to Botswana last summer to investigate postpartum care practices and education of young mothers in Kgalagadi.

On working with Adams, Clinton said, “What I found was, in the U.S., while we have access to great resources, maternal health continues to be a huge issue. It’s a death sentence for a lot of women in the U.S. just to have a kid.”

Despite having one the most advanced health care systems in the world, the US has the highest maternal mortality rate among developed nations, according to various tracking organizations, with states such as Indiana, Louisiana, and Georgia reporting as many as 58 deaths per 100,000 live births as of 2022.

The problem is even worse in the developing world.

“In Botswana, (motherhood) is considered the most dangerous job you can have,” Clinton said. “So for me, that was really like, ‘Holy cow, this is a huge issue, we need to talk about it.’ Especially when we have tangible solutions, when we know how to reduce maternal mortality.”

She soon added global affairs as a major.

In addition to her work in Kgalagadi, Clinton partnered with the Harvard Medical School’s Program in Global Surgery and Social Change to update Ecuador’s national surgical plan. Alongside Adams, she also worked to investigate maternal health in Ghana, contributing to a research paper and creating a postpartum care guide for midwives.

“Grace is not just an intelligent student, but also very enthusiastic about her own aspirations, and has great leadership, problem solving, and interpersonal skills,” Adams said. “Based on my own personal experiences as an undergraduate student, I am very motivated in my role as faculty to mentor students in research and instill in them a desire to make an impact in society. I could not be more proud of Grace for finding her passion, making the decision to pursue it, and accomplishing such great strides. As a mentor, I am delighted to see Grace already making an impact in the lives of women and girls in Botswana. I know she is going to become a great leader in women and girls’ empowerment in the future!”

Clinton, for her part, credits Notre Dame for supplying her with the knowledge and resources necessary to succeed at such a high level both in and out of the classroom.

“If you’d asked me four years ago, this is so not what I’d be doing,” she said of development work. “Notre Dame has helped me to mindset shift to what my role is, to find my vocation.”

To that end, she plans to get her doctorate, she said, and then work as a researcher in the field of medical anthropology, with a focus on “how we can build on community, especially female community, to address development issues.”

In the meantime, she’s excited to return to Botswana and continue to serve and work with the many “amazing” local women there, recognizing it as a unique challenge as well as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put her education and values into practice for the benefit of others—in this case, women and girls across Kgalagadi.

“I miss it so much,” she said. “I love Botswana. I love my host family. I love the people I work with.”

Noting the lack of access to modern conveniences in parts of Kgalagadi, she added, jokingly, that on her next visit, “I am 100 percent bringing a lighter, because I stink at making a fire with matches.”