by Matt Ellison
On August 1, 2016, Katharine Donato joined SFS as the Donald G. Herzberg Professor of International Migration and the new Director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM) at the Walsh School of Foreign Service. ISIM was founded in 1998 by Professor Susan Martin to apply the best in social science research and policy expertise to understanding international migration and its consequences.
Professor Donato has spent her career studying international migration and its human effects, and says she is excited to take on this role at SFS. She comes to Georgetown from Vanderbilt University, where she was a Professor in the Department of Sociology with secondary appointments in the Department of Political Science and the Program for Women & Gender Studies.
“It’s very exciting to come to a place where the platform for me to continue my work on international migration and promote it would be very different from my past,” Donato said.
“In the past I’ve been in disciplinary department homes, but here at Georgetown in the School of Foreign Service, I’m not disciplinary segregated. I’m in a place where the expertise both of students and faculty is multi-disciplinary, and this gives me a foundation to collaborate with people I would have perhaps never have gotten the opportunity to work with.”
For Donato, the migrant experience is one she relates to personally. “My motivations to study international migration go back a long way,” she said.
Her grandparents immigrated to the United States from Italy with low levels of skill and education, moving from New York City’s Lower East Side, to Harlem, to the Bronx, and to Yonkers. “Now that I’ve become a student of migration,” Donato explained, “I realize this was what many immigrants from Italy experienced not only in the immigrants’ generation but also in their children’s generation.”
“I grew up with my grandparents talking about their lives in New York after they arrived, and how hard it was—the poverty, the lifestyle, the goals, the very basic value of being educated and going to school. I feel like I’m living the end stage of the migration experience in the United States—my own life reflects that. I live and breathe this work.”
Taking the helm of ISIM, now in its 18th year, Donato looks to strengthen ISIM’s core programs and seek out new opportunities for collaboration across campus. For her, this includes innovative research projects for which she wants to partner with faculty in disciplines from computer science to international security studies.
“I would like to strengthen all of what exists at ISIM,” Donato said. “There is a certificate program for students in the School of Foreign Service as well as the Law Center. That certificate means that students take courses in humanitarian crises, in international migration and development so they have an expertise in the topic. I certainly want to continue that, and I think we can do better with respect to attracting SFS students to be interested. Given what’s happening in the world, it’s a topic of great relevance.”
“This is an amazing historical moment for people who study international migration as well as those who are interested. Since World War II—up until very recently—we have not seen the volume of refugees that we now see around the world. People are on the move unlike they have been since the mid-twentieth century.”
“They are on the move because, of course, there is a lot of conflict in the Middle East, and there are increasing concerns and estimates suggesting that the number of environmental migrants has gone up.” Donato said. “The best estimates suggest that 20 million people move every year because of flooding and water. The estimates suggest that by 2050, we’re looking at between 50 million to perhaps almost 200 million people who have to move related to weather and flooding concerns.”
These changing dynamics, the rising significance of environmental factors together with economic drivers in the study of migration have been a central focus of Donato’s own ongoing research. “I have been for the last five years working in Bangladesh,” she said. “Rather than thinking about refugees or people that move as a result of political violence, or violence in conflict, I’ve been looking at the environmental dimensions of migration.”
“I can’t see into the future, but it does suggest that ISIM is going to be at the forefront, especially inside the beltway,” she added. “While there are many people and organizations that study migration inside the beltway, we are the only institute or center inside the beltway that is housed in a university, where there are a lot of people with a lot of expertise in areas that intersect with migration.”
“Now in the twenty-first century, we’re living through a period of unprecedented movement with projections for the next twenty to thirty years of even more,” Donato said. “How exciting to be here at SFS, and at ISIM, in this historic moment.”