Podcast by Leischen Kranick, Managing Editor, Edge
Isabelle Vladoiu, Doctoral Student; Founder, U.S. Institute of Diplomacy and Human Rights and
Dr. Elise Rainer, Associate Professor, School of Security and Global Studies
Choosing a topic to research can be a challenge for doctoral students. In this episode, hear from doctoral student, Isabelle Vladoiu, talking with her doctoral chair, Dr. Elise Rainer, about why she chose to research femicide in Latin America. Learn why femicide has wide-ranging social and global-security implications. Also learn her recommendations for students considering a doctoral degree and the important difference between an applied doctorate and a traditional Ph.D. program.
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Leischen Kranick: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Leischen Kranick. Today, we’re going to learn more about what’s involved in pursuing a doctoral degree. To give listeners firsthand insight, I’ve invited two amazing guests today.
The first one is one of our outstanding doctoral students, Isabelle Vladoiu. Isabelle is currently enrolled as a doctoral student in the university’s Doctor of Global Security program. She also has had some really amazing accomplishments. She was recently honored with the coveted Lifetime Achievement Award by President Biden for her incredible work as the founder of the U.S. Institute of Diplomacy and Human Rights. This nonprofit organization focuses on training educators, advocates, and government officials around the world to help implement human rights’ education programs. If you haven’t heard our earlier interview, please be sure to listen to that episode to learn more about Isabelle’s work and all her accomplishments. Isabelle, thanks again for being here.
Isabelle Vladoiu: Thank you so much for the invitation, Leischen. I’m excited to be here again.
Leischen Kranick: So, I’ve also invited Isabelle’s doctoral chair, Dr. Elise Rainer. Dr. Rainer is an associate professor in the School of Security and Global Studies and is a founding faculty member of the university’s doctoral programs. In 2022, she was a faculty award winner being recognized for her outstanding faculty research and scholarship, including her research on international human rights at the United Nations Human Rights Counsel in Geneva. Dr. Rainer was also a former diplomat with the U.S. Department of State and worked on human rights policy and programs in the Middle East. Welcome, Dr. Rainer.
Dr. Elise Rainer: Thank you Leischen, and I appreciate you having us on today.
Leischen Kranick: So, I thought we would start our conversation by first asking Isabelle a little bit about why she chose to pursue a doctoral degree and specifically the doctor of Global Security program here at the university.
Isabelle Vladoiu: Yes. So, it’s very interesting question and I put a lot of thoughts before enrolling into a doctoral degree. Actually for somebody who has been trained their entire life in law, in human rights law, it’s very, very hard to find something out there that it’s bringing you the perspective of global security and actual issues that help human rights.
I thought for a person who just became a mom who wanted to have the flexibility to continue to working and leading a non-profit organization in 56 countries, to have the opportunity to enroll in a program that is not only actual, but it’s also different than what I’ve been studying so far because I didn’t want to have anymore of the perspective of a legal degree or legal terminology. I wanted to actually discuss and discover new instances, new perspective on how I can actually tackle human rights from actual perspective and current needs.
Leischen Kranick: Excellent. So, I wanted to ask you, Dr. Rainer, could you tell us a little bit about how the doctoral program structured? How faculty and students really work closely together?
Dr. Elise Rainer: Yeah, thank you so much. And Isabelle is really just our model student of what we are envisioning when we developed this program of somebody who has a really extensive and stellar career. And then who wants to go further in their studies and get a doctoral degree, to kind of marry that applied knowledge with a theoretical framework.
We have different classes on subjects, there are eight-week classes on various topics of global security, and this really covers a wide range of issues: Nationalism and identity, food security, global governance, democracy, human rights. It’s this really wide range of various topics that are impacting today’s global security and foreign affairs.
So, to describe the structure a little bit, we have a cohort model where students work together, they go through the program together and they become really close. They work together and help each other really, and they’re kind of united with group projects and papers, Zoom meetings.
We are mostly online, but then we meet in person for residencies. Some of these residencies we also offer now virtually, but as a really close interaction with students and faculty, most of the courses are just a handful of students, five to 10 students is kind of my normal size for the courses. And we really talk about global security in an applied way. Again, not just kind of this theoretical, but it is this marriage of the theory and applied where all of the students have careers, most of them are working full-time as they do this doctoral program. And then the faculty, we offer kind of this applied perspective as well where, as you mentioned, I’m a former diplomat, we have real experts in cyber security, we have former FBI, we have a psychologist from the Secret Service on the faculty. We kind of represent also this applied knowledge in the field as well.
Leischen Kranick: Thank you for that overview. So, I’m hoping that the two of you can just talk a little bit about how you’re working together. Can you talk about your collaboration together and your shared interests?
Dr. Elise Rainer: Yeah, thank you so much. When Isabelle first reached out to me, I was just absolutely thrilled to work with her. And let me just take a minute to say a huge congratulations, Isabelle, on this award. You just make the university proud and it’s well-deserved, your work, it’s really, really just commendable and quite amazing, and an inspiration to people who work in the field of human rights and diplomacy.
Isabelle Vladoiu: Thank you so much, Dr. Rainer, and I’m so grateful for you being here with me to share with our listeners here what it means to be a doctoral student, and what it means to also work in the field of human rights and diplomacy at the same time, and how we can marriage these successfully together.
Yes. Talking about the award, obviously it was a big surprise for me. I was invited at an event to speak on women’s rights and I wouldn’t understand why the organizers and hosts were assisting so much, because the event was happening at the United Nations in New York. I live in Washington D.C., and they were insisting so much for me to go out there and speak.
So, for me was really a surprise. I’ve never done my work in the sense of achieving goals such as getting awards, or getting acknowledged internationally, but at the same time, it’s a beautiful recognition because it’s going to allow me to open, let’s say more doors maybe.
It’s going to show that anyone can do it. I’m an immigrant, I’m originally from Eastern Europe. I had no friends, no family helping me. I just had my passion for human rights and my desire to do something good.
Dr. Elise Rainer: That’s amazing. Congratulations again. I thought maybe we could take a step back and look at kind of the field. And again, not to get too theoretical, but for some people who would hear about a doctoral program in global security, they may not first think of human rights. And so, I thought maybe we could just talk about for listeners, what’s the role you see of human rights in foreign policy and in global security?
Isabelle Vladoiu: Thank you. Yes, that indeed is a very good question because a lot of the people don’t realize it that human rights, it’s everything that surrounds us. It’s not only the laws, regulations, conventions, and treaties and the United Nations coming together talking about human rights issues. They are actual problems that happen every single day that, together as society, we can work on tackling and promoting.
To give you an example, when the war started in Ukraine, that created a huge human rights problem, actually created many human rights problems that people were not aware maybe up until that moment. And as a doctoral student, especially in an applicable doctoral program, as I am in, I got the first-hand opportunity to talk with my teachers, with my supervisors, my mentors, my colleagues about this issue. While if you go to law school, let’s say, you are only going to talk about the legal aspect, you are not really going to tackle how human rights are implemented in foreign policies.
When governments around the world focus on specific issues, let’s say the sustainable development goals, the SDG goals, when that agenda was created by the United Nations, then all countries around the world had to implement a form of that SDG into their foreign policy. And that shows how practical issues change on a daily basis. And I think it’s very, very important for somebody who wants to not only research the field but wants to practice human rights actively, you need to be surrounded by people who are doing the same thing, which is this is what this doctoral program is doing.
Dr. Elise Rainer: Fantastic, and thanks for bringing up the war in Ukraine and how this really applies to what we see in our world today. I think also it’s important for context that human rights really was not even an issue of foreign affairs or brought up in international agreements and treaties and definitely not in conflict resolution as of just even a few decades ago.
So, maybe could you kind of flip it around and let’s talk for a minute about what’s missing when foreign leaders do not address human rights? Or when leaders come to the table to try to resolve a conflict and don’t look at human rights concerns, don’t look at how a peace treaty equitably impacts women or ethnic minorities. So, what happens then if human rights are not addressed?
Isabelle Vladoiu: Certainly, I think internationally there is a need, an urgent need of more education. To give you an example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted as a response to the World War II in 1948. So we celebrate 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, the dream of Eleanor Roosevelt and the drafters of the declaration, which they put it in the preamble of the declaration, was to have it taught in every school on Earth.
The purpose was education and instruction of people of human rights. And countries and governments kind of forgot that. If I’m looking right now in the world, there’s only one country in the entire world that has mandatory human rights education in schools, and that’s Costa Rica, and that didn’t happen until 2021. So, fairly recent.
Now, what happens if countries don’t do that? There are studies out there, Canadian studies, Indian studies, that show that there’s a difference when you expose, let’s say children in school to a human rights curriculum, those children, in the end, they will become the future decision makers. When they make decisions, those decision will be based on the principle of respect for another individual. So, it’s very, very important that we start right now to educate these future generations because they are the present and the future.
And a lot of people are not aware how human trafficking, for example, means many other things besides commercial sex-enforced labor. It means also organ harvesting, it means also forced begging. So there are so many instances and perspective that people are unaware of. And our role in society as human rights specialists, as practitioners in the field is to put that message forward so that more people can understand it and break it down so that it’s easy for everyone, no matter their literacy level, no matter their field of work. I think human rights should be something that everyone, if you stop people, random people on the street, they should know about.
Dr. Elise Rainer: Thank you so much. Thank you for explaining that, in kind of general terms of how this can be incorporated more into education, amazing about Costa Rica, good job Costa Rica. And then how this impacts society overall, if it was more integrated into education and into institutions and systems throughout society.
So, can you talk more about your institute and the consultants? I think it’s so fascinating how they deliver human rights trainings?
Isabelle Vladoiu: Yes. So, it started with simply just being me. I trained over 15,000 people in human rights so far. And at one point I realized it’s not going to serve me my entire life to actually reach out to billions of people in this world that do not know about human rights. So, I created an entire career, as a profession of human rights consultants. So, at the U.S. Institute of Diplomacy in Human Rights I supervise the trainings and I train others to become and certify them as human rights consultants.
What that means in their role as consultants, is to go out there and not only deliver training to others, create more knowledge out there in educating other people, but also help businesses and companies implement human rights policies, train their employees and at the same time train the leaders of that organization to implement some of the best human rights principles.
Recently, I see the trend is companies as part of their corporate social responsibility implement different policies, and who’s going to be the ones going out there and helping all these companies? Because definitely it’s not going to be the financial consultants or banking consultants or project manager, necessarily. They’ll need to be specialized people, which in my opinion is going to be the human rights consultants that we are now training, to go out there and help companies implement policies.
Even going a step further recently, let’s say Facebook/Meta created their first human rights report, which is actually a big deal in itself. You’ll see the trend going more and more there. More companies are going to want to take each of the human rights in the universal declaration and show how that right is applicable and it’s implemented in their own organization. That’s going to be the future, the vision that I have, and then obviously I need to train more consultants. Rather than me traveling to Costa Rica or any other countries around the world, I would love to have people in Costa Rica and other countries to actually do that on the field.
Dr. Elise Rainer: It’s fascinating to hear, and wonderful to hear this trend of more and more companies engaging on human rights. And, of course, just like governments engaging on it comes with discussions of hypocrisy or kind of whitewashing or greenwashing and climate change policies and things like that. What’s maybe an example of something you’ve seen that a company has either changed or is in progress of really implementing?
Isabelle Vladoiu: Well, I just provided the example of Meta and Facebook. Obviously, there’s room for improvement and that’s where we come in as human rights consultant to help them more with that. But, right now, there are also indexes for specific topics. For example, implementing religious freedom for all in the workplace. There is an index made by the Religious Freedom and Business Institution. Diversity and equity, there is another index made for companies. Recently, I looked at the report made by AT&T, which is a beautiful 200-pages report as well, that shows how they implemented diversity and equity within their organization. So again, the trend is to have more and more.
Then I see the same changes happening within governments as well. To be more specific, a couple of years back I know of an organization that helped, with the use of human rights education, they trained the entire army, 200,000 infantry people in Columbia while they were fighting with the FARCs, the militant group. And the results of after this training was, before they were killing the people and leaving them there. Now the insurgents in the Columbian army, they were just not shooting to kill but shooting to injure. And then they were taking them as in the hospital and so forth. At the same time, the killings dropped 90%, they were statistics that showed that the killings dropped in the area.
At the end of it also, the peace treaty was signed between the FARCs and the Colombian government. When you teach human rights, nobody goes out there and says, “You shouldn’t do this. You shouldn’t violate that.” You actually teach people about the principles of respect for another individual, and unconsciously that creates a change.
Dr. Elise Rainer: It reminds me of one of my favorite concepts and it’s a quote from the original Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, a Swede, and he said, “The purpose of the United Nations is not to get us to heaven, but to keep us from hell.” And this idea of what is human rights, fundamentally? It’s teaching basic respect for people and potentially in conflict, not killing one another. It’s really quite sometimes just this basic foundational training and understanding of fundamental respect for others.
So, I will get to asking about your research and I just want to have one more question that maybe transitions into that, where maybe some listeners themselves are thinking about going into a doctoral program. And I think you are a great example of somebody, you have this amazing career, you’re a leader in your field and in your institution, and why did you see the purpose of this? How you’ll use this doctorate in global security to help your career in human rights?
Isabelle Vladoiu: That is a great question, actually. And I know before I enroll and I was looking to enroll in a doctoral program, let’s say, family, friends, they will ask you questions such as, “Why do you need to become a doctor, you have success in your field, you don’t really need something like that.” Well, I didn’t need this. And part of the reason is I wanted to stay on top of the crowd and make sure that I’m aware of actual issues that happen as we go. And then an applicable doctoral program will help me with that. A lot of people don’t know the difference between a Ph.D. and a doctoral program, which for me, that was a revelation, also, an epiphany, because I wasn’t aware of that myself.
A Ph.D.’s more philosophical doctoral program where it makes you just study on your own and come up with a beautiful thesis and then try to argue that thesis. An applicable doctorate, you go and you discover issues that are already there and try to find common solutions to those problems. Myself, and I know for sure that many of my colleagues in my cohort, have changed our doctoral thesis, our final thesis so many times throughout this doctoral program because we find out daily about issues that interest us.
When I started, I maybe wanted to do something in human rights, education, generally speaking, or diplomacy. And right now, I actually stopped at femicide in Latin America. That goes to show how every day you get to become more passionate about what you’re doing and discover new things and then you get to interact with the cool teachers.
Dr. Elise Rainer: Well, Isabelle, I thought maybe we could speak for a moment about your current research. And, as you just mentioned, it’s very normal, very common to change topics and to enter a program thinking, “Oh, I’m really passionate about this, I want to study this.” It can really be changing throughout the program.
And so, where you are at right now is looking at femicide in Latin America, and this is a really, really important, critical issue in global security, but then also just in society and the world right now. And so, can you talk about this a little bit? I think that even the word femicide maybe people are unfamiliar with that. So, if you could discuss just your current research right now.
Isabelle Vladoiu: So, femicide represents the killing of a woman just because she is a woman. So, that differentiates it a bit from the general homicide aspect. But just the simple legal terminology and aspect of what femicide is, is how femicide affects women’s security in today’s society or in today’s world.
I realized the Latin American countries really have more instances of femicides as opposed, for example, I was recently traveling to Europe and I was talking with some of my colleagues in the field trying to explain them my thesis, and they were so shocked about hearing how prevalent in Latin America is femicide. To give you an example, a woman dies every single hour according to the United Nations in Latin American countries of femicide.
And I’m looking at Latin America specifically, not necessarily to see why it’s more prevalent there than in North America, let’s say, or European countries. But I want to understand what perpetuates the crime of femicide in Latin America?
I was fortunate enough to be couple of years back in one of the projects preparing for creating a modern law for the entire Latin America on implementing femicide legislation. Because, to understand for our listeners, up until recently, countries such as Brazil, Peru, Mexico, they did not have a legislation to criminalize femicide. So, it was simply homicide, which was not the same thing and it also was not like the premeditated crime.
And looking at that from that perspective, we realized that just changing criminal laws in those countries did not help. And I was really surprised, even myself, as a practitioner in the field, as somebody who went to law school and created their entire life to change systems, starting with the legal aspect, which is the best that you can get in a country, I realize that’s not the entire solution. That’s part of it. But it’s not going to be the entire solution.
So right now, through my research, I hope to look at what are some other alternative solutions on how we can stop it from perpetuating this crime of femicide? How we can make it lower, how we can bring Latin American countries to the same level as European femicide cases?
To give you a perspective, there are about 200 cases in Peru per month, while in Sweden, like two cases maybe. So, how can we balance the world, in general, to showcase that a woman is valuable? And it’s not only from the feminist perspective of women, it also right now affects LGBT communities. They are not anymore seen as the same in society, because women and people in society, they have a specific role in this mindset, in this cultural attitude. So, maybe we can change those cultural attitudes. I’m very excited to start this whole research. I’m obviously in the early stages. I cannot pronounce myself yet onto what I will be able to discover, but maybe we’ll do an episode after I’m done with my doctoral thesis and we can discuss it more.
Dr. Elise Rainer: That’s a great idea. Let’s plan for that. As soon as you have defended your dissertation, we’ll do another podcast. I look forward to that.
I think you bring up a really good point that what’s going on in societies, or how they change, and you made the contrast with Peru and Sweden. I think it’s even interesting to look at the contrast within domestic policy and foreign policy.
For example, Brazil right now has some of the highest levels of transgender violence in the world, and they have a really strong LGBTI foreign policy mandate. Same with the United States. We have a very strong LGBTI foreign policy giving millions of dollars to humanitarian aid and LGBTI organizations around the world. At the same time, we also have some of the highest levels of transgender violence and LGBTI discrimination.
So, are you going to research this more? Are you going to stay in the domestic, looking at societal factors of what leads to femicide, or how that also impacts foreign affairs?
Isabelle Vladoiu: Definitely when you tackle into a subject such as sensitive as femicide, you need to look from both perspectives, domestic and foreign policy. But, obviously, I want first to look much more in depth into what happens on the ground that affects the perpetuating of this whole crime of femicide. And then, maybe make a comparison with the foreign policies of other countries. I might look into differentiating how other countries have tried to tackle these issues and maybe find good models if there are any out there.
Dr. Elise Rainer: That sounds great. I think that it’s hard to make that causality or how does this high, I mean extreme levels of femicide, how does it impact global security? How does this impact the overall society’s economic development? How does this impact the society’s growth, educational potential, income potential, overall GDP when half the population is subject to such extreme violence?
Isabelle Vladoiu: Half of the population, which is women, are being stopped from having a specific role in society just because they are still seen as somebody who needs to stay at home, cook, and don’t have a voice in this society. And I think that brings us, as a society, as a whole globe, it brings us backwards to before women’s suffrage and all the women’s advancement that created.
Again, you don’t have to be a feminist, necessarily. I actually encourage everyone, including men, men have to be part of the solution. If we want to change something as systemically as we want with femicide in the world, we need to have men also understanding that women can have equal rights in society. And you can start seeing that even in countries like Brazil,
they’re very direct and they are respected. But then in other countries they don’t see necessarily women as promoter of business. So, it’s just finding that balance and overall understanding how that affects the entire global security. Women’s security is part of that. Tackling issues such as femicide and allowing equal rights and equal opportunities for everyone.
Dr. Elise Rainer: And I think it’s an important reminder of that no culture is static, that on these issues, cultures are ever-changing and ever-evolving, sometimes digressing, sometimes going backwards. The marriage age in Iran used to be 15, went backwards to nine. The United States, women couldn’t have bank accounts, they couldn’t own assets. In recent history, I worked for the State Department and women were forced to quit as of 1979 if they merely got married. They were not allowed to be diplomats if they were married. No society is kind of set in stone and there’s changes throughout. So, I look forward to see how your research progresses, and it’s just very exciting to work on it with you. So, I think just, what advice or recommendations would you give to students considering a doctoral program?
Isabelle Vladoiu: I would recommend students to go ahead with their emotion and their calling. I always think that two of the best qualities of a person can have in life is calling and preparation. You could say about myself that I prepare my entire life to work in this field. Well, I actually thought I did so, until I realized that you don’t need necessarily a law degree to work in human rights. Anyone can actually work in human rights. But then, advancing in a doctoral program, it’s just going to put you out there, bring you more authority, which is something that is really missing in today’s society.
We need more doctors out there, that are able to research and bring forward issues and gaps that nobody else has ever thought about it. So, it’s always so important to see an issue from other angles. Like there are two sides of the coin, especially when you talk about global security, human rights, diplomacy, NGO, nationalism, all these issues.
And I would also recommend, once you start the doctoral program, make sure that you make it count. Don’t think that your goal, it’s only the final thesis. I always encourage, even my cohort fellows and myself, every single paper that you do for a specific class, use it as a research. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Again, you are here to learn. Just put it out there, publish it. At the end of a doctoral program, not only you’ll have a title, which is important in itself, but you also have a a portfolio full of research papers that you already did. And that only helps you build that authority as a professional and as an expert.
Dr. Elise Rainer: Thanks so much. Leischen, that was it for my questions.
Leischen Kranick: Excellent. Well, it’s so inspirational to hear from both of you. Before we sign off, I just wanted to ask you, Dr. Rainer, you’re a real foundational faculty member in our doctoral program. Do you have any advice for potential students?
Dr. Elise Rainer: Yeah, thank you so much. It’s been really fun to work on this program throughout the years and see how it’s developed and get to work with students like Isabelle, who I just feel honored to learn with you, really.
Anyone out there who’s interested in going for a doctorate, just to go for it. If you’re in the position to do it, it’s never going to be the perfect time. But to just give yourself this gift of education that you will always have that to build your career, to really develop your knowledge, develop your skill set.
And a lot of students in our program, again, it’s an applied program, so they’re coming with a lot of work expertise. And so with maybe a decade, maybe two decades of being in the military or being in the government sector, or non-profit world or private sector, we really have diverse backgrounds of students. And so, maybe you’re thinking of that second career, or to really develop your expertise. And a doctorate is just an excellent way to kind of get you to that next level and get you to that next leadership level in a professional setting.
Leischen Kranick: Well, very inspirational episode. I just want to thank both of you for taking some time to talk to me and talk to our listeners. Isabelle, so appreciative of your time, and congrats again on your award. We can’t wait to hear more from you about your dissertation and your future achievements.
Isabelle Vladoiu: Thank you so much. It was really an honor.
Leischen Kranick: And Dr. Elise Rainer, thank you so much for joining us as well. We’d love to have you back to talk more about some of your work.
Dr. Elise Rainer: Thank you, Leischen, I appreciate you having me. And I really just again, thank you to Isabelle and what an honor to work with you.
Leischen Kranick: Thank you. And thank you to our listeners for joining us. Be well and stay safe.