Disarming Discourse

Karina Barbesino ’19—who has found the intersection between two seemingly disparate passions—says it all starts with language.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

Karina Barbesino ’19 is conversationally fluent in three different languages. Besides being one of the most interesting skills on her resume, it’s also, perhaps, one of the most telling about her personality: She’s all about connecting with people.

The double major in international relations and Asian studies also minored in computer science and hopes to combine all three in pursuit of a career in cyber security, working with governments in east Asia with a focus on human rights. 

“Language is the first way to start understanding people,” says Barbesino, “and it teaches you humility. I plan to work for the government on a think tank, specifically in east Asia and China, so getting the extensive language experience both in the classroom and out in the real world during my time at Rollins has been invaluable.”

Throughout college, Barbesino achieved distinguished honors, earning the Boren Scholarship as a sophomore, a prestigious award reserved for students who intend to pursue careers in federal national security, a Critical Language Scholarship as a junior, and a Fulbright Scholarship as a senior. Thanks to these and other opportunities, she lived in three Chinese cities and completed four academic programs at Chinese universities during her time at Rollins.

For the next year while applying to graduate programs at some of the nation’s top schools, Barbesino is working as an intern for the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., analyzing reports on Russian and Chinese disinformation campaigns and researching Chinese open-source information concerning the Belt and Road Initiative.

When we first talked to Barbesino on a stroll across campus about her career at Rollins and her plans for the future, it was still that ability to connect that stood out more than anything. She stopped to say hello to a passer-by … in Chinese. “Sorry,” she said, “I was just saying ‘hi’ to one of my professors. I’m having dinner with her tonight.”

Karina Barbesino ’19 and one of her mentors, modern languages professor Li Wei. Photo by Scott Cook. Karina Barbesino ’19 and one of her mentors, modern languages professor Li Wei. Photo by Scott Cook.

Now that you’ve been at the Center for a New American Security for a few months, can you tell us a little bit about how you think your experience at Rollins prepared you to succeed right after graduation? “It was through the international experiences I had at Rollins and the opportunity to write an honors thesis that most prepared me to enter the national security sector and gave me a competitive edge when applying. The emphasis Rollins places on demonstrated critical thinking, coupled with a professional working proficiency in a foreign language, are valuable skills that are sought after in D.C. think tanks.”

You double majored in international relations and Asian studies and minored in computer science. What made you combine these disciplines? “I felt I was missing more hard sciences, especially because my majors were more ideologically based, and I wanted to remember how to do math again. I was also really interested in cyber security and wanted my thesis to be about cyber security in different countries. I had read this book by an expert on foreign relations called The Hacked World Order, and I really enjoyed it. I’m considering pursuing computer science for my PhD but am really interested in the international relations aspect of cyber security and wrote my thesis on how cyber security relates to human rights.”

That is fascinating. How do they relate? “Ever since the onset of more advanced technology, and the internet becoming more and more prevalent and important to society, human rights and practices are affected by it. So there’s this evolution of digital rights, and each country has a different view of those digital rights, and a hierarchy of what they see as important and what should be protected. For example, should freedom of expression be contained online because of hate speech? That question turns up a lot more in democracies, not in places like China and Russia, where freedom of expression isn’t much of an issue.”

Say you’re talking to a high school student who is considering Rollins among several colleges. Why study international relations and Asian studies at Rollins? What sets these programs apart from similar ones at other colleges? “Rollins’ international relations program is top-ranked and offers small classes with a range of professors. And you get really close to your professors. It was my relationship with [modern languages professor] Li Wei that led me to an Asian studies major. And then, after taking one computer science class, I immediately connected with the professors and students, which really drove me to stick with it. The computer science department here is small, which helps you when you’re struggling. I went in with no background in computer science. I was pretty lost for the first year, but you have access to professors and other students, and they’re so willing to help you. It also helps that Rollins has a lot of international students. I can’t speak highly enough about the professors and the relationships I made here. They were really a driving force.”

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

It sounds like the relationships you developed with your mentors have been really important to you. How did those relationships contribute to your success at Rollins and prepare you for success after college? “I had a Chinese class with Professor Wei every semester. The past 1½ years, the classes were independent studies—so in his office versus a classroom. I could focus on the vocabulary and topics I wanted, and he helped me so much with my translations. He’s a friend at this point. It’s definitely going to be a lifelong relationship. [Political science professor] Joan Davison is another mentor. She was my thesis advisor before I even had a class with her. She was so encouraging and supportive during my thesis process. I’d send her an email with a draft, and within an hour she’d send back edits and comments or ask me to stop by her office if I was around. It’s really nice to have her as a role model.”

You’ve spent a lot of time in China thanks to your scholarships and study abroad. What were those experiences like? “I never thought I would experience something like I did in China. The first time was for four months in Shanghai through the Boren Scholarship and then again through a Rollins program in Kunming, near the China-Vietnam border. The program emphasized experiential learning, so we’d travel around the province meeting with local experts, professors, and doctors of traditional Chinese medicine, and they would give us classes in both English and Chinese. Learning from them and at the same time just interacting with different locals—it was absolutely amazing. Then last summer, I was awarded the Critical Language Scholarship and went to Dalian in northeast China, about four hours from North Korea, for intensive language classes. The best part after all of these trips was coming back and talking to Professor Wei to see what new topics we could discuss now that I had a more extensive vocabulary.”

Speaking of the Fulbright, you were one of seven Rollins students and graduates to earn a Fulbright Scholarship this year. But you’ve decided to decline. What made you apply and why do you think Rollins produces so many Fulbright Scholars? “It was such a great honor, even though I’m declining. It’s a representation of the people who’ve propped me up, especially Dr. Davison who pushed me to do the application. It was just sort of bad timing. Rollins set me up to earn the Fulbright because of the global citizen mindset. Fulbright is looking for cultural ambassadors. They want people who can look beyond their own culture and their own insights and understand the perspectives of other people. At Rollins this is emphasized through study abroad experiences, and it’s integrated into the classroom as well.”

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

How has the liberal arts approach at Rollins prepared you for success? “I took classes and courses that were outside of my discipline altogether. It’s really fascinating to see how someone from a different discipline would approach the same task we had. I had a class in fiction, and at the end of that class we were supposed to do some sort of murder mystery, and it was so great to see how creative people would be and put their own personality and own discipline into a final project like that.”

What are you going to miss most about Rollins? “Oh, the people. Absolutely. I was driving to campus yesterday for my last classes, and all the sudden I just started crying. I was thinking, ‘I should be happy right now,’ and I am, but I’m also not. I’m going to miss the people. I love academia. I just feel comfortable. Leaving that is going to be a bit hard.”

What’s your favorite memory from your time at Rollins and why? “There are so many! Department dinners were always great. I think one of the funniest was spring semester of my freshman year. The Chinese classes were in Ward Hall, on the same floor that I lived. One day I wasn’t feeling too well and just didn’t want to go to class. So Professor Wei just sent a student to come pick me up for class and say, ‘No you have to come to class.’ So I went to class in my pajamas and a blanket. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this really is a small school experience!’”

What advice do you have for incoming first-year students? Any tips, tricks, or words of wisdom that will help them be as successful at Rollins as you have been? “Try new things. The first thing you come here for, you could be passionate about it, but until you start comparing it to other disciplines or other experiences, you might find something you’re even more passionate about. Take advantage of all that Rollins has to offer because there’s a lot.”

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

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