Shelter from the Storm

Elise Letanosky ’07 has dedicated the past decade to helping people in global hot spots marred by armed conflict and natural disasters.

As a kid in Windermere, Florida, every time Elise Letanosky ’07 sat down for a home-cooked meal, a glimpse at the wall gave her a taste of what life had in store.

“Behind the dinner table was a map of the U.S. and a map of the world that I looked at every day for 20 years,” says Letanosky, whose career in humanitarian aid has taken her to points across the globe. “I grew up in a house that was very socially conscious. My parents were kind of hippies, and they instilled in us that we were global citizens. It was our job to be aware of what was going on nationally and across the world.”

Despite feeling an attachment to international affairs at a young age—“I was the 10-year-old watching all the news and asking for a subscription to The New York Times”—Letanosky had never traveled outside the U.S. before she arrived at Rollins. During her time as an international relations major, she helped build affordable houses in Puerto Rico and experienced life in South Africa, Myanmar, India, and Vietnam while spending a semester at sea.

Today, Letanosky is a protection manager for the Danish Refugee Council in two Turkish cities just north of war-torn Aleppo, Syria. Over the past four years, an estimated 2.5 million Syrians have fled civil war for Turkey, with many living in refugee camps or rural and urban areas along the border. Letanosky’s job entails everything from case management, community programming, and donor relations to increasing local awareness on topics such as child labor, child marriage, and gender-based violence.

“To do this work, you have to accept that it has an emotional impact on you,” says Letanosky, adding that a big part of humanitarian relief is realizing your individual limitations. “People are in really difficult conditions, and you can’t fix it all, so I try to stay focused on some of the micro-aspects of the job. Can I solve the Syrian crisis? No, I cannot. But maybe I’ve supported this particular person or family to be better off than they were before. You have to look at the small wins.”

In previous roles with Relief International, Letanosky served as interim country director in Kabul, Afghanistan, and program manager in Tacloban, Philippines, site of a devastating typhoon in November 2013. She also worked three years for the American Red Cross and two years for the Council on Foreign Relations after earning her master’s in international affairs from George Washington University.

For her extraordinary professional accomplishments and contributions to society, Letanosky received a 2017 Young Alumni Achievement Award on March 31 during Rollins’ Alumni Weekend. Thinking back on her time as a Tar, Letanosky credits anthropology professor Rachel Newcomb, political science professor Joan Davison, and former director of multicultural affairs Donna Lee for shaping her future.

“The best thing about Rollins, by far, were my professors,” she says. “Like a lot of my bosses later on, these were people who said to me, ‘You can do anything you want.’” Newcomb, who oversaw Letanosky’s service as a peer mentor, called her “the ideal student: intelligent, dedicated, and compassionate, while also very responsible.”

“As someone who has pursued a career in foreign affairs and more specifically in humanitarian aid, Elise embodies global citizenship,” Newcomb says. “On the world stage, she represents Rollins and the United States well, and her work shows that Americans can use their position to help others and make the world a better place.”

Julia Jackson ’07 met Letanosky when they were sophomores rooming together in Elizabeth Hall. Their mutual love for Saturday Night Live reruns and sarcastic humor became the basis for a strong friendship.

“Few people in the world have Elise’s courage to do whatever it takes to help others,” Jackson says. “After living in some of the most dangerous, war-torn places on the planet, she remains undeterred and more driven than ever to selflessly aid those in need.”