May 3, 2019 - For Joan Rosenhauer, living a life according to her values today means leading Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, a humanitarian organization dedicated to supporting and empowering refugees and displaced individuals around the globe. 

Joan Rosenhauer's headshot

Joan Rosenhauer is the first woman executive director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA.

As the organization’s first woman executive director, Rosenhauer is motivated every day by JRS’s deep roots in the Catholic Jesuit tradition and how well it aligns with her own personal values. But when she was starting out on her professional path, she had a different vision of where her career would lead. 

“I never could have imagined I would end up where I am today,” she said. “I was originally very focused on addressing domestic poverty, as I believed that was where I could have the greatest impact. The world seemed too big to me, and helping people in local communities seemed more manageable.” 

Rosenhauer said she also didn’t start out working for Catholic organizations, although she was raised in that faith. But, as time went on, she took note of how much work Catholic organizations were doing to alleviate poverty and suffering in communities in the U.S. and around the world, and her interest was piqued. 

“As I saw the role of Catholic organizations in community organizing in the U.S., I was impressed and proud that the Church was involved in that way, and it led me to want to learn more about what was being done.”

Rosenhauer is reflecting on her professional evolution—and what it means to live and work according to her closely held values—as she prepares to address the 2019 graduating class of the School of Nursing & Health Studies (NHS) on Saturday, May 18. For her career-long dedication to social justice and service to others, Georgetown University has selected Rosenhauer to receive the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.

Catholic Social Teaching

Rosenhauer’s growing interest in the Church’s role in social justice led her years ago to the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that promotes social justice and works to alleviate poverty. She held various positions at the conference for more than 15 years, including that of associate director of the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development. 

After receiving her master’s degree in public management from the University of Maryland, Rosenhauer went on to spend nearly nine years as executive vice president for U.S. operations at Catholic Relief Services (CRS). She said she was drawn to the organization’s mission of working in the spirit of Catholic social teaching to promote the dignity of human life and to assist the disadvantaged amid humanitarian crises. 

During her tenure at CRS, Rosenhauer served more than five years on the board of directors of JRS, where she ultimately ended up accepting her current leadership position. She says she is energized by JRS’ commitment to the value of “accompaniment,” or building personal relationships with refugees and displaced people to underscore the fact that we are all brothers and sisters who must look out for one another. 

‘None of My Children Died This Year’

Rosenhauer still recalls a pivotal moment in her career—when she was still with CRS—that fundamentally shaped her perspective on what service to others can mean. She was visiting a village in Ethiopia that was hard-hit by drought and famine and where CRS was implementing a water and sanitation project. 

“I remember driving through an absolutely barren and empty landscape, where the most you could see anywhere was tumbleweeds. Suddenly, you drive around a bend and see nothing but green ,” she said. “I immediately saw the impact of a water project that enabled people to live, to feed their families.”

When one of her colleagues asked women in the village how the project had impacted their lives, one woman replied, “None of my children died this year.”

“That was the moment it really hit me that the magnitude of the problem of global suffering can’t stop us. We can save lives overseas. We can make a big difference in the lives of others,” Rosenhauer recalled. 

Importance of Agility

Rosenhauer believes Jesuit values resonate with the humanitarian work to which she has dedicated her career—she cites Jesuits’ “commitment to justice and peace, and to caring for the poor and for people who are suffering.” She has noted the same thread at the NHS, including a focus on diversity, respect, social justice, and value of the common good.

What she draws on most in her work with refugees and displaced individuals is the Ignatian emphasis on gratitude.

“Attending to what we have to be grateful for every day enables us to better understand our role in helping people who have so many struggles. At the same time it helps us to honor them as individuals and appreciate their resilience,” Rosenhauer said. “I often wonder if I could manage the way they have.”

With more people than ever before living as refugees or having been displaced from their homes due to manmade or natural disasters, the very nature of the global refugee crisis has shifted dramatically—and the response from humanitarian organizations must adapt accordingly, Rosenhauer said. 

“If we thought that everyone was going home after two years, the humanitarian response today would look very different. But they are not going home after two years, so they need to have abilities in the short term to overcome the traumas they have endured, and they need skills to build towards a strong future—whether they stay where they are, go back home, or end up in another country,” she said. 

Similar to how humanitarian organizations must continually adapt to an evolving and growing global crisis, so too must students and professionals continually challenge their own assumptions about what it means to live a values-based life. 

“Being agile is so important, both in terms of being open to what life puts in front of you and being able to adapt and adjust and pursue opportunities that you can’t even imagine yet,” Rosenhauer said. 

Most important, Rosenhauer stressed, is to “always know how your values are shaping what you are doing and how you are doing it.”

By Lauren Wolkoff
GUMC Communications