Alumnae build global understanding through international careers

Maybe it's the campuswide focus on promoting study abroad opportunities. Perhaps it's the dynamic student body made up of people from around the globe. Or it could be a deep curiosity and awareness of global issues at the heart of Katies. Whatever the reason, many St. Catherine University graduates have chosen jobs with an international focus.

St. Kate's is a university founded by a group of daring, world-traveling women, so it only makes sense that so many of its alumni are daring world travelers themselves. For today's Katies, thinking internationally is about more than just travel. It's about a focus on serving others, on expanding the definition of neighbor to those who live thousands of miles away, on supporting women in developing nations, and on promoting peace worldwide. 

We spoke to three graduates who've created internationally focused careers. While their stories are all unique, they share one common thread: St. Kate's helped build and support their global interests, preparing them to be true world citizens.

Kelly Raetzke Abanda: Design Your Detour
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Kelly Raetzke Abanda '99 visited 21 countries over two years during her "Adult Gap Season." In Iceland, she traveled with Jennifer Pakkala Eichten '98. Abanda posed with the rainbow as a reminder that "the world really is in our hands, but we often forget and focus on obstacles. The rainbow is a reminder that we can change those things and live lives we're excited about."

Kelly Raetzke Abanda '99 tends to rely on her gut impulses. So it was uncharacteristic when Abanda took a job right after earning her bachelor's in speech communication – even though her heart told her she should be doing something else. 

"I had this feeling there was something missing in my life," Abanda recalls. It was a good, steady job, one that many young women would be happy to land, but it somehow lacked the sense of adventure she craved. Eventually, after much soul searching, she decided to quit and follow her gut.

That decision led to a cross-country relocation, a job at an inner-city nonprofit in Los Angeles, and then to a senior leadership role with another nonprofit. While these socially conscious jobs satisfied Abanda's soul, deep down she knew there was something greater she had to do. 

"I reached a point where I thought, “I only get one shot at this life,'" Abanda says. "I started making plans to leave my job and do some international traveling." 

For many, including Abanda, this move would feel risky, but she leapt despite the fear because it felt like the perfect next step. 

She announced she was going on what she called an "adult gap season," several months spent traveling the world with intention to grow and learn. As she threw herself into planning, Abanda's adventure took on a life of its own. 

"I had this piece of me that said, “I'm not wired to sit on a beach and veg out," she explains. “This gap season needs to be different. I want to contribute." With that goal in mind, Abanda contacted nonprofits in the countries she hoped to visit, telling them, "I'm going to be coming through your country, and I have this set of skills. Does your organization need help?" Nonprofits in Fiji, Tanzania, and South Africa accepted her offer. 

In June 2016, Abanda set off. “Initially, I thought I was going to go to five countries over two months," she says. "Instead, I went to 21 countries and was gone for two years." She returned to the United States in August 2018. 

Now Abanda felt free to focus on another lifelong goal: starting her own business. Her two-year adventure gave her "a sense of internal transformation" she wanted to share with others. She founded Design Your Detour, a life-coaching business where she helps people figure out how to make room for a transformational gap season in their busy lives. 

Through classes and one-on-one coaching sessions, Abanda encourages clients to think about these adventures as more than a vacation. “Travel is great," Abanda says. "It is a key part of transformation. But I'm talking about something bigger that helps you think about your life and how you'd like to change and grow." 

Abanda credits her alma mater with making her the adventurous, socially conscious woman she is today. Two St. Kate's courses, The Reflective Woman and Global Search for Justice, opened her eyes to the world around her. 

"Those classes basically forced us to think about things from different perspectives and consider what the world would be like through somebody else's eyes," she says. 

Abanda hopes that with Design Your Detour she'll be able to help clients embark on similarly meaningful experiences. "I want to work with people looking for a transformative time but also want to give back," she says.

Marna Anderson: On a Mission

Blame it on the missionaries. When Marna Anderson MAOL'08 was growing up, her father, a minister at St. Paul's Central Baptist Church, invited a series of visiting missionaries to speak to his congregation. As she listened to these men and women talk about their experiences traveling the world, Anderson's interest grew.

"They'd show their slides," she recalls. "I remember being really intrigued with the idea of visiting different cultures and experiencing their way of life."

That strong interest was just a part of Anderson's personality: “My mom says that when I was three, I started talking about going to other countries. That was part of my DNA. I always wanted to see other places and was interested in other languages and where other people lived."

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Photo courtesy of Marna Anderson.

Once she had completed her undergraduate degree at Bethel University, Anderson combined her dreams of adventure and sense of social responsibility, traveling around Central America and supporting the Central America Solidarity Movement. Once the Chapultepec Peace Accords were signed in 1992, she moved to El Salvador, working on issues of violence against women for an international organization. 

After her time in El Salvador, Anderson came home to Minnesota to build a family, but she wasn't ready to lose her international connections. She worked for local nonprofits that focused on global issues, including Advocates for Human Rights and The Nature Conservancy. 

Though she found this work satisfying, Anderson knew she wanted more. She researched graduate programs that could broaden her qualifications and found St. Kate's Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership (MAOL) program. 

"I wanted to grow professionally,” Anderson says. “I wanted to have more of a leadership role." And because the MAOL program is designed for working professionals, Anderson was excited about learning alongside people with a wide range of experiences. "I wanted to learn from my peers and from people with experience in different fields." 

Anderson appreciated the focus on authenticity and ethics that was interwoven in her MAOL courses. She could leverage what she learned, she thought, “to advance what I care about, what has been interwoven throughout my adult life, which was looking at the rights of women and issues of social justice from an international lens." 

Today Anderson uses those skills in her job as director of development and communications for the United States office of Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP).

According to the organization's website, NP "is an unarmed, paid civilian protection force which fosters dialogue among parties in conflict and provides a protective presence for threatened civilians." 

Her job requires extensive international travel, something Anderson relishes. Recently, she accompanied a group of funders on a trip to Kenya for a meeting on the nonprofit's work in the region. “We have to make sure we are effectively communicating our message and identifying people who really care about our mission and are willing to donate to it,” she says. “That’s the central focus on my job.” 

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Photo courtesy of Marna Anderson.

It's important, much-needed work. "There are more people who are fleeing violence in the world now than we have had since World War II,” Anderson says, but her St. Kate's degree readied her for many of the challenges the work presents. 

"I think the MAOL program really did prepare people to be leaders in a lot of different settings," she says. "You had to think outside your comfort zone. That could be applied internationally or cross-culturally within your own community. It had a strong, outward focus that I still rely on today.”

Abigail Burrows White: Heal the World
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Photo courtesy of Abigail Burrows White.

Abigail Burrows White '03 didn't go to college expecting to become a world-traveling nurse. She started as a biology major with no clear career plan. Then life intervened. 

White's father fell ill during her first year of college. While he had a mitral valve replaced at St. Joseph's Hospital in St. Paul, White recalls, "My family spent a lot of time there. I got to know the nursing team and observe how they worked." 

The experience turned out to be good for everyone: White's father's procedure was a success—and White was so impressed by the hospital's hardworking nurses that she changed her major from biology to nursing. 

Once enrolled in the nursing program, White learned her new career could take her just about anywhere in the world. During a January-term course called Celtic Care: Nursing in Ireland, she learned about the role of professional nursing in the Irish healthcare system, traveling to many of the country's cities and small towns. In her senior year, during a Global Search for Justice course focused on women’s health issues in Mexico, she lived with a host family in Cuernavaca, learning about women’s health and the role of nurses in the developing world. These courses, White says, "opened my eyes to travel. The experiences were so inspiring."

Her eyes now wide open, White decided that after graduation she would find a way to work internationally. She'd heard about traveling nurses, health professionals who are hired to work in specific cities for limited amounts of time. The adventure of working and living in a new place felt appealing, but it also sounded lonely. Another option for nurses who wanted to travel was military service. While military nurses are stationed around the globe, White learned they have built-in support and community wherever they go. 

When she got an unexpected call from a recruiter asking if she'd ever considered applying for the Navy, White felt like it was divine intervention. She filled out the paperwork, was accepted, and began officer-training school shortly after graduation. 

White's first posting was at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Okinawa, Japan. When she arrived, she had to jump in feet first. "I was the lowest-ranking officer there," she recalls. "They said, You are going to be an ER nurse.' I had never worked in an ER, but I said, 'Okay. Let's do this. It was a very steep learning curve." 

At first, White says, the experience was "very isolating and kind of scary," but after a brief period of homesickness, she began to love her new home. "In the military you very quickly gain a new sense of community. Everybody is in the same situation. You form a new mini-family overseas." 

White was stationed in Japan for two years before being sent back to the United States, where she met and married her husband. Later, she was transferred to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Naples, Italy. The young couple lived there from 2009-2012, with a nine-month break while White was deployed to Afghanistan. White says she considered their time in Italy a once-in-a lifetime experience. "I like to call that my three-year honeymoon," she says. 

Today White, her husband, and their two young children live in Washington, D.C., where she works at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. During her 14-year career, White has risen in the ranks, earning her MSN as a clinical nurse specialist and holding the rank of Commander. She plans to stay in her job until she retires. 

White credits her time at St. Catherine University as early inspiration for her globe-trotting life. "While I was at St. Kate's, I learned there is a much bigger world out there," she said. "It gave me the confidence I needed to follow my dreams around the world."

by Andy Steiner, from St. Catherine University Magazine Spring 2019 issue