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Alum gets ‘hooked on international development’ at USAID, follows passion to lead international programs at World Vision

June 2, 2014

When Kent Hill (MA, REECAS, 1976; PhD, Russian History, 1980) finished his MAIS degree at the Jackson School, he originally wanted to become a Foreign Service Officer, but after his interview in San Francisco, he wasn’t selected. So, instead, he set his sights on teaching and a Ph.D. in Russian history from the University of Washington.

Kent as JSIS student

Kent Hill as a Jackson School graduate student at Moscow State University in 1978.

That turn of events led Hill to Moscow in the Soviet Union, where he gained a lifelong interest in issues of religious freedom. Hill, now Senior Vice President of International Programs Group at World Vision, U.S. – part of World Vision International, the world’s largest private international development organization – said, “Resumes don’t tell the whole story. They tell the story of the doors you were able to walk through. They don’t tell the story of the doors you wanted to walk through but it didn’t work out.” In Hill’s case, he did not get into the Foreign Service, but he did end up as a senior leader of foreign service officers while working at USAID from 2001-2009.

Hill and his wife, Janice, lived in Moscow, and later Paris, to write his dissertation, “On the Threshold of Faith. An Intellectual Biography of Lev Shestov from 1901 to 1920 Focusing on His Concept of Man.” His research was funded with grant money from a FLAS Fellowship, a Fulbright Scholarship, and IREX.

The dissertation was soon delayed, however, when he met seven unregistered Russian Pentecostals who had brought numerous hand-written manuscripts detailing Soviet religious persecution to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Hill later translated these documents into more than 600 typed pages. The group, who became known internationally as the “Siberian Seven,” lived for nearly five years in the U.S. Embassy to avoid arrest and further harassment by the KGB. The embassy asked Hill to translate the documents from Russian and “one thing led to another. I ended up interpreting for the media,” he said. Professor Donald Treadgold, his Ph.D. advisor, told him the dissertation could wait – that the primary documentation of religious persecution was more timely.

“By the time I got back to the UW,” Hill said, “I was asked to testify for U.S. House and Senate committees on religious freedom as a graduate student who had direct information about the Soviet Union.” Hill later wrote about the “Siberian Seven” in his book, The Soviet Union on the Brink. This was the second edition of his study of Christianity in the USSR and the changes that occurred during glasnost under Gorbachev.

Hill said it’s important for international affairs practitioners to understand world religions and applauded the Jackson School’s thematic areas of study that focus on religion, such as Comparative Religion and Jewish Studies.

“Fully grasping the importance of religion in global culture and politics is tremendously important,” Hill said. “Sometimes our own church-state separation sensitivities get in the way of that. If you insist on believing that the world’s problems all relate to material needs – food and water access, economic development, health – it misses the problems related to human greed, the need for reconciliation and peacebuilding – issues world religions must be engaged in. Religions can be part of the problem, but they are often key to the solution.”

When it comes to conflicts such as war in the Balkans, Hill said, which involves Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox, rational secular arguments will never be enough. “First, talk to the religious figures in the community. Ask: Who are the voices that can talk about reconciliation and forgiveness?”

When World Vision is doing development work in the Muslim world, “we visit the local Imam first,” Hill said. “We’re not trying to make converts, we’re trying to help them meet basic needs, and it is not necessary or productive to hide that we are Christian.”

Hill never dreamed he would end up in international development. After completing his Ph.D., Hill taught European history for six years at Seattle Pacific University, where he received tenure. He enjoyed teaching and was selected “teacher of the year,” but in 1986 he took a leave of absence from SPU to work on religious freedom issues in Washington, D.C., and never made it back to teaching. As president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, “I never did get to work with Scoop Jackson directly,” he said, “but I was working with Congress on both sides of the aisle on religious liberty issues related to the USSR and Eastern Europe.”

Hill said that the United States and the West still deal with questions of religious freedom, but now the religious freedom questions can be found in the developed world as well. For example, U.S. courts are considering cases brought by Catholic and other Christian employers who object to parts of the Affordable Care Act that require coverage for contraceptives or abortion. While working at the John Templeton Foundation from 2009-2011, Hill helped to obtain funding for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. According to its website, the program is “devoted exclusively to the analysis of religious freedom, a basic human right restricted in many parts of the world.”

Kent Hill as Assistant Administration of Bureau of Europe and Eurasia meeting with the President of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, directly across from Kent and Ambassador Richard Miles to Kent’s left.

While working at USAID as the Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Europe and Eurasia from 2001-2005, Kent Hill (left-center) met with the President of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze (right-center), and Ambassador Richard Miles (directly on Hill's left).

While working at USAID as the Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Europe and Eurasia from 2001-2005, Kent Hill (left-center) met with the President of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze (right-center), and Ambassador Richard Miles (directly on Hill’s left).

After six years in Washington, D.C., Hill left to become President of Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Mass., where he stayed for nine years. He oversaw revenue increases, campus renovations and technology upgrades, before he was nominated by President George W. Bush to become Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Europe and Eurasia at the United States Agency for International Development. USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios wanted someone who could speak Russian for the role of managing U.S. foreign assistance to the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Hill jumped at the opportunity to return to his academic area of expertise and spent months preparing for the Senate confirmation hearings.

Hill said his UW education gave him a broad background of knowledge that helped to shape his understanding of different cultures and people. “I much enjoyed my time at USAID and felt well prepared by my Jackson School academic training. The history background is especially valuable,” he said.

Hill said he didn’t know much about the Balkans when he came to UW, but that his advisor insisted he learn more about Eastern Europe. “The Balkans are immensely complicated,” he said. “But I got that grounding at UW. It had a tremendous impact on my ability to oversee Balkan development at USAID.”

After four years of traveling around the former Soviet Union and Europe, Hill was asked to take on a larger portfolio at USAID as Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for Global Health, from 2005-2009.

A major focus during Hill’s tenure were programs that addressed HIV/AIDS, such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). He also administered global health programs focused on avian influenza, malaria, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases, as well as maternal and child health, family planning, environmental health, and nutrition.

During his seven years with USAID, Hill regularly testified before Congress and, as he put it, “really got hooked on international development.” Thus, after two years with the Templeton Foundation, Hill was glad to accept his current position at World Vision in 2011.

World Vision, which started in the United States more than 60 years ago, is now an international organization, with $2.6 billion in revenue, that does development work in nearly 100 countries and has 46,000 employees worldwide. It has 19 support offices, including its U.S. headquarters in Federal Way, Wash. Hill oversees about 170 employees, most of whom are located in its Washington, D.C., location. He monitors the $1 billion that World Vision, U.S., contributes to World Vision International by “visiting the field, monitoring projects, putting out fires.” His most recent trip was to South Sudan with U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Toby Lanzer.


Kent Hill as VP for Character Development of John Templeton Foundation in China.

Kent Hill as VP for Character Development of John Templeton Foundation in China.

“I’ve really fallen in love with international development,” Hill said. “It’s meaningful work. It’s work that matters.”

Hill beams when he talks about his own children: daughter Jennifer Hill Boutz, who earned her Ph.D. in Arabic linguistics and literature from Georgetown University, and son Jonathan Hill, who works as Guest Services Supervisor at St. Francis House homeless shelter in Boston. He said living in Russia for several months when the children were 8 and 10 gave them a sense of the world well beyond that of American suburbs.

Hill encouraged Jackson School students to take chances early in their career and not look too far ahead. “Enjoy and profit from your opportunities today,” he said. “It’s fine to choose a major, but I would urge young people to always keep their eyes wide open to opportunities that are not squarely in what they consider their niche specialty to be.”

He also urged students to “do a knock-out-of-the-park performance on what you’re doing today. … I think character matters tremendously. Spending time knowing who you are, what matters to you – and being faithful to that – is really more important than anything else.”


By Kristina Bowman