For Daniela Ligiero (PSYC Ph.D. ’03), traveling the world has always been a way of life. Before moving to the United States as a teenager, she lived in Germany, Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Haiti. This year alone, she’s already visited Honduras, Uganda, England, El Salvador and South Africa on behalf of Together for Girls (TfG)—a global public-private partnership focused on ending violence against children—where she currently serves as CEO.
However, the University of Maryland is a place that feels like home to Ligiero—so much so that she spent a decade as a student here, earning a B.S., an M.S. and a Ph.D. from the Department of Psychology.
“When I started as an undergrad, I had a very limited perspective of what a psychologist did but I was exposed to so much (while at the university) and it really broadened my horizons,” Ligiero said. “I realized there was a lot I could do with a degree in psychology and there were so many ways to engage when it comes to social justice.”
Working on social justice issues has always been a passion for Ligiero. It stems from a childhood spent moving around the globe with her family while her dad worked for the United States Foreign Service.
“I think because I had the opportunity to live in developing countries when I was a kid that I actually saw how unjust the world is in ways we’re often shielded from in the United States,” said Ligiero who is fluent in French, Spanish, Portuguese and English. “I remember thinking ‘This isn’t right, there has to a better way’.”
After arriving at the University of Maryland, Ligiero was trying to decide how to combine her love of working with people, with her passion for social justice and an interest in science and math.
“I considered being a physics major… but I would have been miserable sitting in a physics lab,” Ligiero said. “I came to realize I could use my love of math and science in psychology in ways I never thought possible.”
A turning point came for Ligiero when she received a Congressional Fellowship through the American Psychological Association that allowed her to use her science background to inform lawmakers on Capitol Hill about proposed legislation.
“After six months on the Hill, I knew I would never go back; working on policy and implementing programs that have the capacity to affect people’s lives thousands and millions at a time is an amazing opportunity,” Ligiero said.
After receiving her doctorate in Counseling and Community Psychology, Ligiero went on to hold numerous positions related to international development and global health: She was the first Chief of HIV at UNICEF in Brazil, served as the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator for the U.S. Department of State, and held the title of Vice President of Girls and Women’s Strategy at the UN Foundation.
Today, Ligiero relies upon her training as a researcher and psychologist to collect and interpret data about violence against children in countries around the world. At the head of Together for Girls, Ligiero helps raise awareness about crimes against children—sexual violence against girls in particular—a cause that’s deeply personal for her.
“I’m very open about the fact that I experienced sexual violence as a child and I use that to try to create a world where other girls don’t have to go through that, where my own two daughters don’t have to fear sexual violence,” Ligiero said. “At Together for Girls, we talk about these tough issues so they come out of the shadows and become part of the conversation.”
Ligiero knows her career isn’t typical of what most people associate with psychologists, but says her education at the University of Maryland provided her with a vital understanding of how human behavior works and how to change it—knowledge she relies upon daily.
“Violence is a behavioral problem. It’s a societal problem, but it’s caused by human behavior,” Ligiero said. “Understanding how to shape human behavior is actually really important when you’re talking about how to solve some of the biggest problems in the world.”
Ligiero currently lives in Bethesda, Md. with her husband and two daughters.