Profiles in International Education: Karen Smith Rotabi

by Dr. Jessie Voigts /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture
Jan 11, 2012 / 0 comments

I am intrigued by the ways that academics are working to constantly internationalize higher education, and improve the global education experience for students. One such change agent for international education is Karen Smith Rotabi (PhD, LMSW, MPH), Assistant Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work. Her work in the Peace Corps spurred her interest in intercountry adoption, human rights, Guatemalan culture and history, and international education. She’s been on NPR, and has two websites that feature her advocacy work, and Her most recent article, Beyond study abroad: A human rights delegation to teach policy advocacy, Journal of Social Work Education (in press), proposes that advancement of human rights is critical in the social work curriculum, as well as for the profession.


Karen Smith Rotabi



We caught up with Dr. Rotabi and asked her to share her background in international education, advice, cultural diplomacy, and more. Here’s what she had to say…



WE: Please tell us about your background in International Education...

KSR: I identify as a professional social worker and I have graduate degrees in both social work and public health. Now, I am a professor of Social Work at Virginia Commonwealth University. However, my international perspective is a result of far more than formal education. I have been actively engaged in global settings for over 20 years and I look back on my first study abroad experience and smile. At that time, I was a Spanish language student in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Not long after, I had an opportunity to assist on a study abroad trip to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Then, over time, I eventually began to lead study groups. Now, I have an active research agenda on human rights, human trafficking, and violence against women in Central America. Much of my research agenda focuses on Guatemala and I have published widely on the state of women and children in this nation. You can find some of my work at



WE: What led you to this field?

KSR: I have always been globally minded and my interest in Latin America was originally stimulated as a child when I began to study my family history. My great grandmother was born in the Yucatan of Mexico and we had a bi-national family identity on my mother’s side of the family. We traveled back and forth and, in time, I began to think about how to develop an international career. Once I finished my bachelor’s degree, I volunteered for Peace Corps in Belize, Central America. That decision was one of the best choices I made in my early stages of career-building. Everything that I’ve done and accomplished thus far has roots in this time of my life.



WE: What advice do you offer to students, to increase their international awareness?

KSR: I like to say “thinking globally” when I talk about how we must view the world in terms of problems and solutions. In social work, we deal with immigrant populations and all too often those people coming from Mexico and Central America have difficult histories related to poverty and inequality. When you “think globally” one can begin to take a critical lens to the inherent issues of immigration, policies, and practices of engaging with people from other nations. In social work, that means social services and being prepared to work with this population in a culturally competent manner is critically important, especially attendant to the language barriers. This is an example of going from global issues to local practices.

As I tell my students, taking an opportunity to study abroad and participate in cross-cultural exchanges is very valuable. I think that every student with the financial means should include such an experience in the 4-year budget for university. This may seem like a stretch or a luxury, but I think that is the wrong way to view such a strategic decision for any student who is interested in building a career for the 21st Century.  Then, while studying abroad, put the polish onto language skills that you learned in the classroom.



WE: What steps should colleges and universities take to integrate international education into the mainstream, instead of viewing it as a special interest?

KSR: Different institutions around the nation have a variety of existent programs while others are diligently building programs. My biggest concern about this time of rapid global expansion is that we develop learning experiences rather than tourism. By that, I mean that we need meaningful and respectful learning experiences in which reciprocity is valued and honored. This is particularly important when we travel as study groups to low-resource nations. If we go to countries and act as nothing more than tourists with demands, then we will be treated in that sort of superficial manner. However, if we go as engaged learners we will begin to build relationships between people and potentially between institutions. This sort of global networking is only possible with concerted efforts and mutual respect. All too often, I see students who don’t understand this idea of mutual respect at the deepest levels. Study abroad is not Spring break in Cancun. It is a learning experience that requires considerable preparation and thoughtfulness.

Any institution that considers these issues when developing programs will facilitate learning experiences rather than simply contracting with travel agents that book tickets and hotel rooms with a guide. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very good organizations that specialize in learning experiences abroad, but they are specialized and have years of experience in ethical engagement. They are the experts. I like to think that we need to contract with these organizations as they are the “fair trade” of study abroad. They hire local people, have sustained relationships in the nations, and engaged in projects—often service projects--that focus on empowerment and mutual learning. They are not flash in the pan programming that engages once a year in a nation—the best organizations have deep relationships in country.

One such organization is the Highland Support Project. This organization focuses mainly on the Highlands of Guatemala. They have year-round employees in Guatemala and a sustained record in that nation for well over a decade. They understand the logistics and security issues at hand and their commitment to “community” in Guatemala is as deep as the DNA of the organization. Contracting with such a group is really the best of study abroad. And, the organization has a variety of service learning projects ranging from improved stoves to arts education. My favorite group is the Mayan Midwives trip. Not only does the Highland Support Program have competent professionals leading groups, but they make sure that all in the learning community really benefit.

When universities develop programs within a framework of facilitation that is provided by this organization and ethically grounded providers, then far more than a superficial program is developed. It is a program that will not only have happy students, but also happy hosts. Then all are served.



WE: International Education (through Study Abroad, cultural exchange, etc.) can change the world. How can we promote these activities and move forward with intercultural knowledge and cultural diplomacy?

KSR: I see international education as one component part of global change. I’m pleased when I see my students get excited about global issues and I try to foster that in the classroom. Obviously I also promote study abroad as a supplement to the classroom.

Promotion of these activities takes place in many forms. I see students return and take on the responsibility to building awareness about social problems and opportunities for change in low-resource nations like those in Central America. Then, I see students return from Western Europe with new ideas about solutions to social problems like inadequate health care systems and universal health care as a solution. The interchange of information is powerful. But, that is not enough. Social action for change is most critical at the end of the day. So, information is one step. Then, the idea of “beyond study abroad” becomes an important consideration in terms of next steps. Many study abroad and cultural exchanges have opportunities to go beyond the experience and engage in awareness and advocacy. To me, that is when it really gets interesting in the long term.



WE: You've written a great deal about Study Abroad - how can the field move forward and develop greater opportunities and cultural awareness for participants?

KSR: I think well developed and executed global experiences speak for themselves. Our students come back invigorated and ready to take information to the next level. I encourage my students publish a photo journal (one student created online. Of course, there are many different venues for blogging and information sharing in social networks. Take advantage of these opportunities. And then, when you come back make a presentation to your church congregation or a local civic group— pick a specific topic of interest to many and develop a presentation on that subject. And, when these activities are done well the effect is infectious. With the enthusiasm of many, the global networks will continue to build and more and more people with begin to “think globally”.



WE: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

KSR: Becoming a globally minded citizen of the world happens as a result of a variety of factors. As we broaden our minds with education, we must all push ourselves. I constantly read about human rights issues in other nations and stay current on international news. I also read Latin American literature and stay in touch with friends in Central America. All of this has come together for me in a way that informs my “global thinking”. However, when it is all said and done—the best advice is GO FORTH and LEARN. If one is really interested in a global career, then they should try to do something that is prolonged engagement. This kind of experience will push the need to focus on language and culture. And for me that was Peace Corps. 



WE: Thank you so much, Dr. Rotabi. Your work is fascinating, and long-reaching in its importance. 




Click here to see all of our international education profile features, in Profiles in International Education: A Compendium