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From Würzburg into the world


Valérie Guérin-Sendelbach studied political science, economics and history in Würzburg. At the age of 52, the teacher has taken a break from her job to go to Kenya with a volunteer service.

Valérie Guérin-Sendelbach
Even at 52, it is not too late for a sabbatical and voluntary service in Africa, says Valérie Guérin-Sendelbach. (Photo: private)

Which jobs do graduates from the University of Würzburg work in? To present different perspectives to students, Michaela Thiel, the director of the central alumni network, interviews selected alumni. This time, it is Dr. Valérie Guérin-Sendelbach's turn.

The alumna studied political science, economics and history at the University of Würzburg and works as a teacher and supervisor for social science and history and as a political education officer at the Friedrich Oberlin college of higher education in Munich. In September 2018, she went to Kenya with a volunteer service.

Ms. Guérin-Sendelbach, which aspects of what you learned at university did you find particularly relevant in your work later on? After graduating from university, I first worked as a research assistant at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Bonn. I learned the basic principles for this activity among others during lectures and seminars on current topics from international politics by Professor Adolf Kimmel. Also the lectures of Professor Peter Bofinger on the European economic and monetary union as well as seminars that taught us the methods of scientific working were immensely helpful. Coming from France and having known only teacher-centred teaching until then, discussing in a group was also very important and new for me – even though some discussions weren’t always that productive.

There were many different stops along your career path. Why is that so? Humanity scholars don't always have it easy in our high-tech society. But my combination of disciplines has also enabled me to work in different jobs over the years: from scientific publications and lectures to organising and moderating conferences with the corresponding budget responsibility as well as building networks between industry, politics and science. I worked at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) first as a research assistant and later as head of the department for Franco-German relations. When the department relocated to Berlin, I changed to the Center for European Integration Studies in Bonn where I worked as a project leader. My university studies also allowed me to reconcile work and family life as I was initially able to write journalistic articles for the Goethe Institute/Inter Nationes from home and later got the chance to accept various teaching assignments. 

Which challenges do you see in your field of work? I think the major challenge is the complexity of change and the acceleration of the change process. I have been teaching social science and history among others in Munich for twelve years. Not only the curricula have changed but also the demands on teachers: I am not just talking about the frequently debated requirements for the digital world but also about a different understanding of learning. Education is measured by how flexible or rather competent the students are in adjusting to these new demands.

And what opportunities do you see? As a career changer, I believe that the main chances in this job involve thinking and acting across disciplines, keeping my expert knowledge up to date and consistently checking my teaching methods. And last but not least: You always have to be in a good mood – I have to motivate my students. But this can be rather challenging with some of them!

Why did you decide to do volunteer service in Kenya? Why not? My career path hasn't been linear until now and I finally wanted to do something I always tell my students to do after they have graduated: Go abroad and do something for a good cause! And it is never too late to do this, not even at 52! Of course my husband's consent was a precondition for my going abroad as was the school management's approval of my sabbatical for which I am very grateful. The only question was: Where should I go? I opted for the association "Promoting Africa" because their various services directly benefit the local students: They give especially young women a chance in life through education. This is what counts most for me.

What is the volunteer service like? I will probably work both in their Skill Centre, a vocational school, and in the nearby Secondary School. I will give courses on HIV prevention and application trainings and of course I will also offer modules on political education there. Moreover, it would be important to build a network with small- and medium-sized businesses where the students could do internships to increase their chances of getting a job later on. Once a week, I will support the association's work with the children in the slums of Nairobi. This will probably be hard.

And how did you prepare? I met with former volunteers and the project coordinator, I read a lot about Kenya and I am currently brushing up my English. But I also had to take numerous bureaucratic obstacles such as applying for visas and taking out foreign health insurance. And of course I had to get various vaccinations. 

What are your favourite memories of your time in Würzburg? I have good memories of Würzburg. It is twinned with the French town of Caen where I come from. If these two towns weren't twinned, I would never have studied there and met my husband. I still remember it as a cosy city which was a great place to study at the time. And I enjoyed the summer evenings with a glass of berry wine overlooking the roofs of Würzburg near the Käppele ('Little Chapel'). At first though, I found studying very strenuous. I had to master the art of accounting in German while not knowing anything about it in French in the first place. But the whole environment was very inspiring and supporting. I would like to thank Professor Kimmel, my dissertation supervisor, for his support and also his lovely and helpful secretary Ms. Lindner. Yes, the time at the Uni Würzburg was definitely a good time.

Thank you for the interview.

If you want to learn more about the alumni network of the University of Würzburg or to register, follow the link below.

By Michaela Thiel / Gunnar Bartsch