My Story By Jacqueline Kempfer

Editor’s Note: My Story is an autobiographical series written by the experts and team at the nonpartisan Stimson Center. Each story details the people, places, and events that led the author to dedicate their career to resolving some of the world’s most pressing global challenges to peace and prosperity. We continue this series with Stimson expert Jacqueline Kempfer.

I was born and raised in New Bern, a small town in Eastern North Carolina...

Like most small southern towns, there was not a lot going on, and finding fun usually involved a sense of adventure and an active imagination. I always had a flare for drama, and loved going to the movies. When I saw Independence Day in theaters growing up it sparked a life-long love for disaster movies (even the terrible ones one would find on cable TV on a random evening).

I also loved history for the same reason; whether in a book on the French Revolution or a class covering the Cold War, I immersed myself in the excitement and drama of prominent historical flashpoints that changed the course of the world, even threatened its very existence.

But my search for all things adventurous led me to other activities that did not quite fit my penchant for the apocalyptic: community volunteering.

Jacqueline grew up in the small town of New Bern, North Carolina, where she developed an affinity for history, community service, and good (and bad) disaster movies.

As a very active member of my church youth group, I volunteered with the World Changers organization each summer.

A group from my church would travel to a different state, or different country and either repair damaged homes, or build new ones for those in need. Part of the reason I loved volunteering came from my constant desire to travel and see new things. But what really got me hooked was the tangible feeling of making a true difference. Physically using my hands to help build communities was one of the most rewarding moments I had ever been a part of.

Jacqueline's studies led her to graduate school at NC State, where she would be drawn to a career path making tangible, on the ground impact.

Several years later while I was a freshman in college, the world turned upside down.

9/11 was a terrifying historical flashpoint. I found myself asking, how did we get here? I realized that I knew very little about what was happening in the world. That feeling of ignorance I had after 9/11 played a large role when I settled on history as a major for my undergraduate degree.

After graduating, I was encouraged to pursue a PhD in history. But before delving deeper into academia, I wanted a break to think about whether this was really the right path to take. I took a position working as a staff member at East Carolina University. It was not a hand in glove fit. I missed the on the ground impact I experienced during my volunteer work; I knew, for me, there was a different path forward.

Instead of a PhD, I started graduate school at NC State University in the Masters of International Studies program. I realized that making a real impact would require getting out in the world and seeing firsthand what some of the greatest challenges are.

I went to Nepal to volunteer in the relief efforts after the catastrophic 2015 earthquake. I traveled to Kathmandu, with plans to travel on to a small village a few hours outside the city that had been devastated by an avalanche.

In April 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal. Nearly 9,000 people were killed, and more than 20,000 were injured. Jacqueline went to Nepal to assist with relief efforts.

When I returned, with the help of mentors, I took a hard look again at the next step in my journey.

Where could I have the most impact? How could I practically apply my skills? The answer for me, simply, was nuclear security and nonproliferation.

The threat of nuclear materials falling into the wrong hands is one that world leaders have long agreed poses a major risk to global peace and security. New energy and ideas are needed to reduce the risk of an incident of nuclear terrorism. After seeing the tragedy and widespread devastation of a natural disaster, I saw too that nuclear security was a type of man-made disaster that I could proactively work to prevent.

I'm fortunate today to work on these efforts at Stimson with leaders in civil society and government in the U.S. and around the globe. Together, we take pragmatic steps to ensure that a nuclear incident doesn't take place. Our success, ultimately, is measured by the absence of mushroom clouds. Or, to put another way: my work, and the work of so many others, succeeds when the use of nuclear devices is confined only to the realm of creative fiction — on the big screens of good and (bad) disaster movies, that helped start me on my pathway here so many years ago.


Jacqueline Kempfer is a Research Assistant with the Nuclear Security program at Stimson.

Innovative Ideas Changing the World


US Federal Civil Defense Administration; Walter Albertin; White House Staff Photographers; Ken Lund; UN Development Programme

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