Alumni Interview with Isabella Arbelaez

This interview was conducted over email with Isabella Arbelaez, a strategy leadership fellow for The College Board, by Gargi Mahadeshwar, a third-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. Arbelaez earned a bachelor’s degree in Global Literature along with a certificate in Human Rights Studies from Duke in 2019.

What has been your path to your current position? 

As the daughter of a Colombian immigrant, I have continued to orient my work around migratory students and communities. Graduating from Duke University in 2019 with a degree in Global Comparative Studies and a certificate in Human Rights, I joined the Teach for America Corps in Massachusetts in 2019, as a high school English as a Second Language teacher in the Greater Boston area. After two years in the classroom, I knew I wanted to continue to make an impact in the education sector and increase awareness of education inequity with the community at large, leading me to Teach for America in Tennessee as the Manager of Individual Giving across Nashville and Chattanooga. In this role, I cultivated and developed relationships with TFA supporters and regional board members to build a coalition of communities committed to advancing TFA's mission and advance the institutional strength of the organization. In January 2023, I joined the College Board as a Strategy Leadership Program fellow, eager to understand more about nonprofit leadership, problem solving, and community impact, and committed to continuing to advance access to education equity.

Which human rights issues do you engage with most directly and how?

As a freshman, I was a part of the Kenan Institute for Ethics FOCUS: Refugee, Rights, and Resettlement. This course plugged me into MASTERY, an on-campus tutoring program for refugee students and their families. As a tutor, classroom coordinator, then program manager, my passion for education, my love for children, and my commitment to education equity were brought together in one space. My sophomore year, I traveled with the Kenan team through DukeImmerse to Aman, Jordan, to study the displacement of Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Jordan. These two months abroad brought to life the refugee experience, a narrative many read about in the news but to which few are proximate.

How has your study of/passion for human rights influenced your life personally and professionally?

My four years at Duke were framed by my work around refugees and studies in global literature. The field of human rights - of asking “Why” of this world, of thinking critically but hopefully about inequity – has served as a formative lens through which I see my work in education.

How did your Human Rights Certificate courses at Duke prepare you for your career?

The Human Rights Certificate allowed me to continue my work around refugee studies, while understanding where and how the refugee crisis fit into the arc of human rights violations worldwide. The certificate broadened my understanding of these issues, while also revealing the connective tissues across historical conflicts, through the coursework, classroom discussions, and student reflections.

What would you recommend to undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career in human rights? 

The certificate is a unique experience to engage with different departments and fields of study through the lens of human rights. It is a dynamic field, and one that is ever evolving. Take advantage of the various opportunities it has to travel and study abroad in order to deepen your understanding.