Women Who Empower: Estela Rojo

Author: Colleen Wilcox

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This story is part of Notre Dame International's series titled "Women Who Empower."

Estela Rojo

Don’t expect Estela Rojo to sit still, even through retirement.

The lifelong learner may be stepping away from her position at the University of Notre Dame’s Santiago Global Center, but her calendar is chock-full of activities.

“Never stop living and learning,” says Rojo. “I used to tell my students to live your convictions – and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

Rojo has dedicated her life to education, focusing on the underserved and underrepresented. It started at Saint George’s College, a locally renowned school led by the Congregation of Holy Cross in Santiago. There, she was introduced to the University of Notre Dame and was asked to support a small group of study abroad students in Santiago.

At the time, the University was part of a consortium with two other universities. With the support of Rev. Timothy R. Scully, C.S.C., who served his first years of priesthood in Chile, Notre Dame created a formal presence by opening up the Santiago Global Center. Rojo was tasked with helping the University build its international reputation in Chile, while providing unique and transformative experiences for students.

Years later, she was joined by Juan Esteban Montes, who now serves as the director of the Santiago Global Center. Years prior, Rojo worked with Montes’s father at Saint George's College, a coincidence that brought her career full circle.

With the support of the Congregation of Holy Cross, they expanded the program beyond study abroad by offering student and faculty exchanges, language immersion programs, dual degrees, internships and collaborative research opportunities. To increase international collaborations and exchanges, Notre Dame partnered with Pontifical Universidad Católica de Chile (PUC), where the Global Center sits today at the San Joaquin campus.

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Rojo is pictured with former study abroad students on a trip to Valparaiso.

The program has continued to grow with partners on campus, like the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, who were instrumental in finding key partners who shared Notre Dame’s goals and mission.

As the program grew and more students were able to study abroad in Chile, the team grew in response, adding Felipe Gomez, who serves as the academic coordinator.

“We were more like family – all three generations are represented,” she likes to say.

While Rojo is known for her contributions to the growth of global education and the internationalization of Notre Dame, she will be remembered for her deep passion and commitment to the students.

“In the beginning, I took on a motherly role,” she says. “These students were far from home and they weren’t as connected to their families.”

While technology evolved over the years, Rojo’s ability to serve and care for students never wavered. She remained dedicated to helping students through major transitions and didn’t steer away from difficult conversations. She served and cared for thousands of students over the years, ultimately transforming their study abroad experiences.

Many of her former students still contact her today and send notes about their professional or personal achievements. Some have returned years later with their growing families.

“For me, education was a way to connect with students and help them go beyond their comfort zone. They gave me energy,” she says.

Rojo officially retired from the Santiago Global Center last month.

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Rojo is pictured with her team at the Santiago Global Center.