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UMD to the World

Abby Flottemesch Robinson
April 21, 2021

Alumna takes on an international challenge.

In January 2021, Abby (Flottemesch) Robinson ’99 was named Interim CEO for Atlas Corp, an international network of nonprofit leaders and organizations. Robinson, like so many during the COVID-19 pandemic, is working from home in Montreal, Quebec, where she lives with her two young sons (ages 3 and 5) and her husband. 

Abby (Flottemesch) Robinson

Abby (Flottemesch) Robinson

Taking the helm of an endeavor like Atlas Corps under any circumstances is a huge undertaking, but Robinson feels up to the challenge. She also reminisces about her journey, from its start at UMD to the present.

The Power of Connection

Robinson thinks the A.B. Anderson building had something to do with her trajectory. There was something “special about both the communication and Spanish departments being in the same hallway… their impact was amplified,” she says.  

“It was a dynamic group,” and she names “Michael Sunnafrank. Boyd Dallos, and Elizabeth Nelson” as some of her most influential communication teachers. “Communication was just a lot of fun; and obviously I still use [lessons from] my public speaking class all the time.” 

Another faculty powerhouse, just a few doors down the hall, were Spanish faculty Eileen Zeitz and Tomás Weidrner-Ocarnpo. “They had very different approaches to teaching the Spanish language.” she says, and that gave her “a richer experience.” 

It also gave her confidence! She says, “I did a summer backpacking trip through Central America with my sister and a friend.” She was able to turn the trip into an independent study. “It was literally my first time out of the United States other than Canada.” Later she traveled with classmates in Mexico on a three-week study abroad trip led by Weidrner-Ocarnpo. 

Most important, she says, “Those early travels have forever impacted my life.” She left UMD with a major in communication and Spanish, and a minor in marketing. 

Leaving Minnesota

Developing a proficiency in Spanish turned out to be a brilliant move. At first, Robinson worked as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer in Puerto Rico, then she spent about eight years taking high schoolers on social justice service trips for Envision Experience. That led to a Campus Kitchens Project job at Augsburg College, feeding the homeless in Minneapolis. A move to Campus Kitchens in Washington, D.C., as a development director brought her back to fundraising again.   

Abby with fellows

Robinson (at right with arm raised) and Atlas Corps Fellows from Turkey, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Australia, Venezuela, and Pakistan.

Using her Spanish once more, she took another international position, this time with the Fundación Escuela Nueva Contract in Bogota, Columbia. She wrote grants and helped the organization improve their international presence. 

That preparation paved the way for her first assignment with Atlas Corp in 2010, where she made her way to Chief Development and Engagement Officer, conducting outreach, cultivating relationships, and working on communication goals.

Explaining Atlas Corps

Imagine leaving your work and family to travel halfway around the world for 6–18 months. People of all ages do it when they join the Peace Corps to help countries in need. Atlas Corps turns the Peace Corps model around. They bring emerging leaders together with seasoned pros to learn from each other about best practices. Since 2006, 750 social change leaders have come to the program from 96 countries and 300 organizations.

In Class 41, one of the 2020-2021 classes, people from Malawi, India, Poland, Bangladesh, Kenya, Morocco, Zimbabwe, and Madagascar are learning the skills to run nonprofits and NGOs. Year after year, Atlas Corp fellows have brought back strategies to their home countries to fight famine, war, disease, substandard schools, and other problems. 

The Program’s Strength

Robinson is proud to take on the role of Interim CEO. She’s immensely moved by the stories  from the people who have been touched by Atlas Corps. One comes to mind.

In 2014, in the midst of massive unrest, famine, and war, “an educator from Southern Sudan joined an Atlas Corps Class,” Robinson says.  The Fellow served as a conduit between activities in Washington, DC, and home as he helped shape how to better provide services in South Sudan based on his personal and professional experience in his home country. 

“Just seeing his commitment and determination to go back home and make a difference,” influenced the entire class. “He went back to set up a successful educational exchange to help teachers in South Sudan,” Robinson says. “That’s one examples of our impact.” And that's just one reason why Robinson is dedicated to serving the program.

Banner Photo (above): Robinson backpacking in Columbia.

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