AUBURN — U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Pamela White recalled Friday the last time she stood in Edward Little High School’s gymnasium.

“It was my high school prom,” she said. “I haven’t thought about it at all for 40 years.”

She spoke to about 150 students and teachers in her alma mater’s gym. She was invited by social studies teacher Erin Towns as part of the U.S. Department of State’s effort to get officials to go home and talk about their experiences.

But Towns said the presentation was also designed to inspire students to think about the kinds of lives they could have after they are done at Edward Little.

White said her life has taken her from Liberian refugee camps to Hollywood parties. The most important thing for students to know is that they can make a difference — and they must.

“Poverty is not natural,” she said, quoting Nelson Mandela. “It is man-made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the action of human beings. Sometime it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that generation. Please let your greatness blossom.”

White said she started on her path sitting in that same gym in 1967, listening to a speaker from the Peace Corps. U.S. troops were in Vietnam, and she said she hated that fact. A cousin had just returned from combat there, in dire physical shape.

“That recruiter showed pictures of young people, just like me, serving in the Peace Corps in villages all over Africa,” she said. “And the chief recruiter said, ‘Listen, young people, if you want to change the world, join the Peace Corps.’ And boy, at that time, did I want to change the world.”

Four years later, she was teaching English at a school in Cameroon.

Since then, she’s worked all over the continent — from Burkina Faso to South Africa to Tanzania. She met then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton while she was working in South Africa.

White went on to attain the rank of career minister and worked as mission director for the United States Agency for International Development in Liberia. She met Hillary Rodham Clinton again in Liberia when Clinton was secretary of state.

“At the end of that visit, she said she was going to make me an ambassador,” White said.

She was assigned to the west African nation of The Gambia as ambassador for two years in 2010, and later made ambassador to Haiti.

She said the country is still recovering from the 2010 earthquake, but the people have hope. She said Americans can be impatient for the country to get better.

“Almost 300,000 people died. They died,” she said. “Can you even imagine 300,000 people dying in less than a minute? Another 300,000 were injured — eyes pinched, hands off, feet blown away, spines broken. Another 1.2 million were left homeless and 10 million cubic feet of rubble blocked every avenue and street.”

U.S. aid and charity has helped. Children are returning to school and the country is coming back.

“We helped Haiti get back on her feet,” she said. “Yes, it cost a lot of money. It cost almost a billion dollars. But we saved lives, we gave people a reason to live and some modicum of dignity. And the people of Haiti did get on their feet again.”

White said she was in Auburn to visit with her parents, who live south of Taylor Pond. She and her husband are building a retirement home on Orrs Island in Harspwell.

Friday was the first time she’d been in the school in years. It was a new building when she started, she said, and it seemed to hold up well. It actually seemed larger then she recalled.

“But maybe it’s spending so much time on schools in little towns in Africa,” she said. “Three rooms is considered pretty big, so this is humongous to me.”

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