Distinguished Alumni Award: Celina Schocken '91

Celina Schocken ’91, right, brainstorms with midwives at Rwabuhihi Health Center in Uganda on training programs to reduce maternal mortality for women like the mom-to-be, left, who traveled from a rural mountain village to deliver at the hospital.

March 2014

by Paula Bock

Around the world, millions of people now have mosquito nets and anti-malarial drugs, treatment and prevention for HIV and AIDS, and access to family planning and safer births — thanks to the tireless work of global-health visionary Celina Schocken ’91. In recognition of her work, Schocken received the 2014 Distinguished Alumni Award, which honors Lakeside and St. Nicholas alumni who make outstanding contributions to their professions or communities.

Schocken started her global journey as a young teen when she traveled to the Soviet Union with other Lakeside students on one of the first U.S. – USSR exchanges. After college she served in the Peace Corps in West Africa’s Guinea-Bissau, living in a mud hut with no electricity or running water. She helped midwives deliver prenatal care and babies. “It was tough,” Schocken recalls. No hospital. No ambulance. Few supplies. “Realistically, if a mother was in trouble, there wasn’t much we could do.”

When a mother dies, the whole village cries, Schocken says. The loss ripples through the community as older girls leave school to take over the mother’s responsibilities. Schocken witnessed things falling apart for families when their children couldn’t get an education. She realized that villages, indeed, entire countries, suffer when maternal mortality and disease deprive communities of bright, educated young adults. So Schocken dedicated herself to improving health in the world’s hardest places.

Schocken started her global journey when she traveled to the Soviet Union with other Lakeside students on one of the first U.S. – USSR exchanges.

After earning degrees in law and public policy at University of California, Berkeley, she worked as a Clinton Foundation consultant, co-authoring Rwanda’s five-year, multimillion-dollar plan to combat HIV and AIDS and then serving as chief advisor to the Rwandan health ministry. Today, every patient who needs antiretroviral medication in Rwanda gets it, and a country once racked by genocide has become an international leader in public-health policy.

With her powerful intellect and humble demeanor, Schocken went on to Population Services International, helping Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Madagascar, Tanzania, Togo, Nigeria, Pakistan, India, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand manage more than $1 billion in grants. No easy task: At the top, a Byzantine funding bureaucracy; on the ground, few paved roads.

“Celina is a genius at helping people design programs and pitches to attract funding,” says Chastain Fitzgerald, who supervised Schocken at the nonprofit PSI. “She knows how to work within the developing world, all the crazy obstacles she’s going to face, but she’s not daunted.”

Democratic Republic of Congo. Twelve million mosquito nets to distribute. Rainy season fast approaching. The logistics rivaled any battle plan. The nets were shipped from Vietnam to Tanzania, trucked overland, and cleared customs. Original strategy was to barge them, but the river was too low. Stuck. For weeks. Trains? One train ran off the rails; a mining company monopolized the other locomotives. Schocken worked every connection — customs officers, the governor, the president — then tried to rent locomotives from South Africa. In the end, to beat the rains, the nets were loaded on freight planes, then canoes, wagons, and donkeys. Before malaria season hit, filmy nets blanketed the country as planned, each strung by nail and string to protect families from malaria’s sting.

“Celina is incredibly tenacious, smart and charming,” Fitzgerald says. “And she uses all that on behalf of poor people.”

In 2012, Schocken focused again on maternal health. She led Saving Mothers, Giving Life, a $280-million public-private partnership aimed at reducing maternal mortality in sub-Saharan Africa; directed a $500-million Merck for Mothers maternal health initiative; and developed a $50-million Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation partnership on family planning.

She knows how to work within the developing world, all the crazy obstacles she’s going to face, but she’s not daunted.- Chastain Fitzgerald

Ever the visionary, Schocken is now working on several new projects. She spent a month recently at a rural hospital in western Uganda, helping women access surgery for birth injuries such as fistula. On the horizon: helping nonprofits work more effectively and using markets to get innovative medical devices to low-resource clinics. It’s all part of a continuum, Schocken says, to help people in developing countries lead healthier lives.

For improving health — and giving hope — to the most vulnerable people in the world’s hardest places, the Lakeside/St. Nicholas Alumni Association is privileged to honor Celina Schocken ’91 with the 2014 Distinguished Alumni Award.