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Alumna Profile: Donna the Explorer
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Alumna Profile: Donna the Explorer

Donna Roginski ’68 Travels the World Examining U.S. Embassies

By Laurie Garrett

Donna Roginski reckons she has spent time in over 75 countries since she graduated from Notre Dame College in 1968. A social studies major at the time, Roginski originally thought she would become a nun. But that was not to be her calling.

Her life changed dramatically in her sophomore year when she won a scholarship to the East-West Center in Hawaii. She learned about the scholarship by chance, and friends who knew of her interest in Asia urged her to apply.

The East-West Center (EWC) is an independent, public, nonprofit organization located on the campus of the University of Hawaii. It encompasses many programs with the mission to promote better relations and understanding among the people of the U.S., Asia and the Pacific region. Toward this end, it sponsors cooperative study, research and dialogue. Roginski spent a year there before coming back to NDC.

“I studied the Japanese and Chinese languages – an intensive study – beginning in June following my sophomore year, before spending my junior year at EWC and the University of Hawaii,” Roginski said, “At the university, I continued my intensive language studies, while carrying a full academic load.”

Roginski said the year was quite challenging but at the same time stimulating. It ended with her spending the summer at Fu Jen University in Taipei, before returning to Notre Dame College.

After completing her degree at Notre Dame, Roginski spent a year as a teaching assistant at John Carroll University.

“At that point, I thought I’d go into Sino-Soviet Studies, and Carroll had a good Russian program,” she said. “But I decided after a year, I’d really rather focus on Asia.”

So, Roginski returned to Hawaii, where she earned her M.A. in Asian History from the University of Hawaii. While in graduate school, she joined the Overseas Career Program, which arranged an internship for her as a journalist in Hong Kong, where the language is Cantonese. She had studied Mandarin. But she soon found she was adept at learning new languages.

Roginski lived overseas for almost seven years, first in Hong Kong and then the Philippines, working as a press/cultural attaché at foreign embassies. After that assignment was over, not wanting to return to the U.S. quite yet, she backpacked through Asia and Europe for 11 months.

“When you’re traveling alone, it can be daunting,” she said. “But on the other hand, I struck up conversations with all sorts of people, and was invited to dinner by natives of whatever country I was in. It was quite an experience.”

Roginski was in England when she decided to return to the U.S. and to contemplate what to do next. Upon returning, she took a job with Time-Life Books in Alexandria, Va. Although it was work she enjoyed, she realized how much she missed working in different cultural settings.

She decided to explore options that would give her that opportunity again, and took the entrance exam for the Foreign Service. She scored high on all five “cones,” or career tracks within the State Department: political, economic, administrative, consular and public diplomacy.

By the time the offer came through to join the service, she was pretty well settled at Time-Life and in Virginia. But the pull of immersing herself in another country and culture won.

“I had to think very carefully about pulling up roots, but am very glad that I decided to do so,” she said.

Roginski entered the Foreign Service in 1984 and decided to focus on public diplomacy because she was interested in working with the media, acting as a spokesperson for U.S. embassies overseas.

A globetrotter: Donna Roginski (left) regularly travels to far-away places such as Africa.
A globetrotter: Donna Roginski (left) regularly travels to far-away places such as Africa.

Her first posting was in Brazil, which meant she had to learn Portuguese. Since then she has lived in India, Central America, South Africa and Mexico.

Roginski said there is nothing like living in another country and being steeped in the culture. While living in Brazil, for instance, she participated in the big carnival parade, dancing the samba.

In India, in the state of Rajasthan, she dined under the stars at the ancestral home of a former maharajah. Afterwards, the guests were escorted back to their hotel on horseback. It was the first time she had ever ridden a horse. The route back was through the desert and the only light was from the stars.

“It was like time travel,” Roginski said. “It was so dark and there was a long line of us on horseback, journeying back to the hotel. All that could be heard was the sound of a soft breeze and the clip-clop of the horses' hooves.”

If in India she first rode a horse, it was in Africa that she rode an elephant. There, she also went on safari – not to shoot animals, but to observe them in the wild.

Roginski said she became a jack-of-all-trades in the embassy business.

She has nominated candidates for the International Visitor Leadership Program, which brings to the U.S. potential leaders in a variety of fields from around the world. Some of these people are now presidents and prime ministers. They travel to two or three cities, including Washington D.C., during the course of a three-week visit, meeting Americans working in their particular fields.

She has worked on a documentary about slavery with the wife of the former ambassador to South Africa and has also helped arrange a traveling exhibit of Frida Khalo’s paintings, which originated in Mexico and travelled to museums throughout the U.S.

Along the way, Roginski has met world leaders such as South African activist Desmond Tutu, historian John Hope Franklin and former president George H. W. Bush. Along the way, she also adopted a daughter. Margarita is from Mexico and has accompanied her mother on many adventures. She grew up attending international schools with students of many nationalities and now has friends all over the world.

Last summer was the 50th anniversary of the East-West Center, which opened up the world to Roginski. Her daughter now lives in Hawaii with her husband and children, while Roginski is back in Washington on assignment. Her rank is Minister-Counselor, the second highest ranking in the Foreign Service, the highest being Career Minister.

At this point in her life, Roginski enjoys mentoring young officers and helping more experienced ones work more effectively, a perfect fit for her current job with the Office of the Inspector General, where she is able to draw on her years of experience in the field.

“I’ve had a career I love,” she said. “I feel I’ve really made a difference to people – at home and around the world.”

Laurie Garrett is an adult student majoring in graphic design at Notre Dame College.