Advancing Technology for Humanity: How Did I Get Here?

By Karen Panetta

How did I get here? This was the question I was asking myself as I was sandwiched between seven secret service agents in an elevator going up to a penthouse suite in one of the most premier hotels in New York City.  I was about to meet the President of Malawi, Her Excellency, Joyce Banda.

Her Excellency had actually sought me out and requested my presence. Initially, I declined the invitation because I dreaded having to travel by plane and missing my scheduled class.  She responded by telling me I could visit her on a non-teaching day that would better accommodate my schedule.

And so the following day, I got up at 3AM to make a 6AM flight out of Logan airport. I threw on my best suit, which had so much metallic threading in it, that it set off the metal detectors at every security checkpoint.  This is the price one pays for liking shiny, glittery fashions.

When I landed, my cab driver refused to bring me anywhere near the hotel. “Too much security,” he said nervously, as he unceremoniously dumped me out at a nearby building encrusted in scaffolding. The United Nations was meeting and unlucky for me, my meeting was in the hotel where all the Presidents were staying.

I set off more security alarms as I made my way into the hotel and headed toward the elevators.

The president’s handlers came to meet me. They gave me explicit instructions. They told me  I would be lucky to get 10 minutes of her time, and not to interrupt her when she was speaking. The latter comment made me panic.


For those of you that know me, when I have something to say, I can’t wait and the mouth overrides the brain. Still, I was curious why she requested my presence. I thought maybe she had the wrong “Panetta” in mind. I tried to prepare and organize my thoughts for my 10 minutes, but I was too tired and felt my eyes burning from the lack of sleep. To make matters even worse,  my hair was so wild and unruly it looked like the mass of snakes floating out of the head of the mythical creature Medusa. For those of you not familiar with Medusa, one look from her turned people into stone, and at this moment, I did look and feel like Medusa.

“I will just have to be myself and do the best I can,” I thought.

After the elevator doors opened, I was led to a very stately room. All the president’s ministers lined up, and there I was standing alone across from them. President Banda entered and greeted me.

She began to tell me about her country’s drought, and how young girls drop out of school when they reach the age of 13 because they don’t have underwear or feminine products. She told me how her country has so much sunshine and yet they do not have any way to capture those renewable energy sources for power. She told me how many children are orphaned and have no future once they age out of the orphanages.  She shared her dreams of providing her country’s youth with a good education, and how she hopes to find ways of utilizing distance learning.

This is a woman who knows that technology is out there to improve life for her people and was reaching out to me for my help.

It didn’t matter how tired I was, my heart kicked in. I began to speak with the best clarity and fluidity of any speech or lecture I have ever given, and I don’t think I can ever match that stride again. I began one by one addressing each of the topic areas she brought up and for every one of them, IEEE had a solution.


We have IEEE members all around the world, ready to take on these challenges and happy to help. The humanitarian group is producing solar trailers that can power 40 homes, and it is intended that IEEE volunteers will train entrepreneurs to run the trailers as businesses and help provide economic opportunities in different countries. We have online courses, educators to develop curriculum  and teacher-in-service training programs, where IEEE volunteers will travel around the world to train local educators in technology to then pass on this knowledge to their students. What could I possibly propose for the issue of the young girls dropping out of school?

How about using distance education, IEEE mentorship programs  and access to health information via mobile applications?  I had just completed the plans for the

When I was finished, Her Excellency clasped her hands together and then pointed to her ministers and said, “Look how happy you have made them!  This is the best meeting I have had in New York.”;

On my flight back home, I thought back to when I was an undergraduate student and the reasons I joined IEEE. It was to get connected with professionals to find a job. I never expected to be capable of developing so much expertise in so many different subjects, or to begin to understand how to solve problems facing an entire country. I certainly never expected to be meeting presidents. I didn’t know I would learn firsthand about different cultures and make friends in countries that I couldn’t even find on the map back when I was a student.

My meeting with Her Excellency lasted an hour and she continues to call me on my cell phone, even today.

What I remember most about this experience is that for the first time in my life, I didn’t interrupt anyone during a conversation. Honestly, I know that will never happen again!

When I exited the meeting, a crowd of photographers and film crews from news stations surrounded me asking me questions about my meeting. At the first sight of them, I muttered, “Oh no, they are about to interview Medusa in her glittery suit.” I then proceeded to answer questions.

As I was exiting the interview session, a tourist in the crowd of onlookers asked someone who I was.

The person responded, “Her name is Medusa and she is an engineer.”;

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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