Alumni Profile: Irla Atanda ’20, Special Assistant to the President of Refugees International, on Her Global Education

Author: Shannon Rooney

Irla Atanda '20 with her mother and brother, who dropped Atanda off at the start of her first year.

Irla Atanda ’20 may have come to Notre Dame with the intention of being a doctor, but as she got into the coursework, she realized that what she really wanted was to understand people—and help them. 

This new goal meant that Atanda ended up pursuing a major in American studies. Designed to explore and understand the concept of “American-ness,” American studies examines from multiple perspectives the diverse cultures, societies, and politics that make up the people of the United States. 

Atanda found exactly what she was looking for in the program, along with her minor in international development studies. Through these, she pursued interests in Latin America and the topic of migration, specifically, for a number of reasons. One reason is Atanda’s mom first came to the United States as an asylum seeker from her home country of Nicaragua. 

“[I wanted] to understand why people are the way they are. How do they interact with certain social constructs, like gender and race...not only within the United States, but in [understanding] how U.S. influence really transcends borders,” says Atanda. 

Atanda took classes on religion in America, gender, and popular culture, among other topics, and says she learned something new about people and society through each one of them. 

Atanda with Associate Professor and Department Chair Jason Ruiz and Dolly the dog in Cali, Colombia

Atanda got to know her professors well. Through a class with Associate Professor and Department Chair Jason Ruiz, Atanda had the opportunity to go on a weeklong research trip to Colombia led by Ruiz. As a part of this trip, Atanda and the other students accompanying professor Ruiz had the opportunity to visit a soup kitchen and serve lunch to Venezuelan migrants. Thanks to funding from Notre Dame’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies, Atanda returned to Colombia a second time the summer before her senior year, to the same soup kitchen, where she conducted  interviews for her senior capstone project on the topic of cultural integration and access to education of Venezuelans in Colombia. 

As a recipient of the prestigious Gilman Scholarship, Atanda further internationalized her education. She studied abroad in South Africa during her first year as a student at the University of Cape Town and, additionally, through Notre Dame’s Santiago, Chile program her junior year. She  also participated in the International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP) through Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns, through which she traveled to Bolivia to serve at an education center dedicated to the academic advancement and social development of child workers. 

Atanda at the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa

These experiences were “formative,” to say the least, says Atanda. “It is kind of crazy looking back. I went to so many places I’d never thought I’d go to, all thanks to Notre Dame.”

Because each international experience was different, ranging from service to research to coursework abroad, Atanda always felt engaged and supported as she globalized her education. 

Now, Atanda lives in Washington, D.C., a city she loves, where she explores the many neighborhoods, sights, and things to do. The city, and especially her position as special assistant to the president of Refugees International, serve to continue her cross-cultural experiences.  

“All these cross-cultural connections have made me a more compassionate person and has made me realize that things are oftentimes more complex than they really might seem,” says Atanda. “I have never been one to see the world as ‘black and white,’ but I can’t imagine ever living a life where I don’t value the gray areas.” 

Because of her experiences, Atanda continues to seek out connections with people “who are absolutely different from me,” in order to expand her understanding of the world around her. 

Learn More


Meet some other Notre Dame alumni and learn about their ND experiences.