Interview by Aja Jawneh
Alice Muthoni Murage comes from Kenya and graduated from the Willy Brandt School of Public School in 2016 with a Master’s degree in Public Policy. Her Master’s thesis was on the transitional justice process in eastern DRC, looking specifically at the DDR and army reform programs. She recently moved to Vancouver, where she explores research and projects around reconciliation in Canada and public engagement in policymaking. Alice also has a strong interest in gender issues and aims at mainstreaming gender issues in her work. She has previously worked on gender-related research and programming in Kenya, Myanmar, and Cambodia.
Tell me about your journey to Erfurt.
Coming to study in Germany was a big move for me, both personally and professionally. First, it was my first time living abroad. Second, I was pursuing a Master’s degree program that I was passionate about. Following my undergraduate degree in Kenya, I had a dream of pursuing an advanced degree abroad, but did not know how that would happen. I felt that I needed to broaden my horizons, both culturally and academically. In pursuit of my dream, I applied for scholarships through various universities in Europe and North America. Getting an offer letter from the DAAD office in December of 2013 was a dream come true for me. Not only did I get a full scholarship to study what I was passionate about, I also got a scholarship to study the German language for six months. I got an opportunity to indulge myself in both the cultural life in Germany, as well as academics.
My undergraduate degree was in International Relations and Diplomacy, so I wanted to specialize in an aspect of the broad spectrum of international issues I had learned about. One aspect that stood out for me was conflict management and human rights. This was particularly important to me because of the post-election violence I experienced in 2007, right before I had gone into university. I deeply felt that I wanted to contribute to making sure such violence did not happen again. I wanted to contribute to ensuring that those that affected by violence have access to redress. I was angry at how the cries of internally displaced people in my country did not receive much attention. Their cries for justice and reparations were not taken seriously. The ethnic divisions in my country made me anxious, as I saw how the neighboring countries were being destroyed by divisive politics and outright war. I also wanted to fight social injustice, particularly those associated with gender discrimination. Starting on my Master’s degree program in Erfurt was an exciting time for me. For some reason, fate or chance had come together for me and I was to study abroad to pursue a Master’s degree in Public Policy, with a specialization in Conflict Studies and Management.
How was your time in Erfurt?
My time in Erfurt was busy, but awesome. I was busy doing different, interesting things, both academically and personally. The first year at the university was mostly about getting used to the new academic approach and workload, as well as engaging in my new social environment. I attended a couple of academic workshop and conferences in addition to my academic work at the university. In my second year, I had the privilege of working as an intern with the Registrar of the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
Socially, I was involved in activities organized by the ‘Fremde Werden Freunde’ program, as well as the Erfurt University’s international office. My life in Erfurt, however, was mostly centered within the university and did not interact much with local people, beyond the salsa and zouk parties I loved going to.
How was it like studying in the Willy Brandt School?
The most remarkable thing about studying at Willy Brandt School is that class always felt like a mini United Nations. In our class, we were about 64 students coming from over 30 counties spread across all continents. It was very insightful to study in such a multi-cultural setting and learn from people from different contexts with different perspectives. You could, for instance, read an article about Hong Kong, India, Afghanistan, China, Canada, or the U.S.A., and talk about it with someone from that country the following day. My colleagues were a great resource for my learning experience at the school.
While I liked the big seminar-like lectures with over 60 students in a lecture hall, I preferred the small classes in my specialization courses. Apart from the one-one interaction with lecturers that this allowed, I got to interact and learn with students who had the same passion as I did – a passion of contributing to the field of conflict management and conflict transformation. Our lectures were also practice-oriented, as most of them had previously worked, or were still working, in conflict regions.
My experiencing studying at the Willy Brandt School was insightful, inspiring, and invigorating.
How did the school contribute to your professional growth?
First, let me say that my experience at the school made me grow both personally and professionally. Studying and interacting with people from different backgrounds on a daily basis naturally increased one’s interpersonal and cultural competencies. I learned a lot about working in multi-cultural groups. I came to realize, for example, that one should not judge anybody based on cultural stereotypes. While such stereotypes might give you clue on how to interact with people, for example in terms of perception of time, stereotypes undermine the intersectionality of individual personality and experiences.
Professionally, I was able to master skills around policy and social research while at the school. My professional writing skills also improved tremendously while at the school, as I had to write a term paper every other week. Researching on and writing my master’s thesis was a perfect culmination of these skills. I have continuously drawn from these skills since my graduation in 2016.
Now tell me about your professional life after the Brandt School.
Following my graduation, I decided to pursue my dream of working in Southeast Asia. Having studied with students from the region, I was drawn to how similar Southeast Asia and Africa are in various historical and cultural aspects, yet there was been little comparative studies. I wanted to learn more about the region beyond what was written in books. So far, I have had the privilege of independently conducting two policy research projects in Myanmar and Cambodia, respectively. I look forward to doing more work in the region in the near future.
Initially, I worked with the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Myanmar on a research project looking at how CSOs in the country were contributing to women’s political participation and effectiveness. The research paper I authored was published and I later presented my findings at the organization’s headquarters in Berlin. Having built a rapport with the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, I was contracted to research on social and policy issues around parenting in Cambodia. I specifically explored the challenges of parenting, assessed policies and programs aimed at supporting parenting, and made recommendation on how parenting can better be supported. In both projects, I used qualitative research methods, with one-on-one interviews and focus groups discussions as my central tools for information gathering to learn about the realities on the ground, as well as the perception of people on their social and policy contexts.
During my time in Myanmar and Cambodia, I was also involved in other smaller projects that explored the post-conflict realities in both countries. In Myanmar, I contributed to an article that aimed at shedding light to the peace process in the country and the reality of the negotiation process between the government and various armed ethnic groups in the country. I was also an observer in the drafting of an inter-faith harmony bill that was being framed by local NGOs at the time. In Cambodia, I co-hosted a conference on trauma and healing which was organized by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung. With the trauma in Cambodia that followed the extraordinary violent crimes by Khmer Rouge regime might go unnoticed, first-hand and inter-generational trauma is very much a day-to-day reality for many Cambodians.
At the moment, I am trying to find my professional space in a new context. Having recently moved to Canada, I have explored issues around the genocide and other crimes against indigenous people in the country, as well as the reconciliation process being embraced by the Canadian government and many Canadians. During the 2018 conference on peace and conflict studies organized by the Willy Brandt School, I made a presentation on the reconciliation process in Canada. I am currently keen on issues around public participation in policy processes and have been involved with related work by the Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.
What advice do you have for current students?
First of all, I would advise current students to appreciate and use the resource they have in each other. Having colleagues coming from different professional, cultural, and policy contexts is not something to take for granted. There is so much students can learn from each other. There so much that students can cooperate and work together on.
Second, take advantage of opportunities around you. Learn German, go to workshops and conferences, do at least one awesome internship, participate in cultural activities, apply for the commitment award, write papers, etc. Keep looking for those opportunities and explore them. Students can gain so much more than going to classes and passing exams.
Lastly, be yourself, stand up for what you believe in, and strive to be the best version of yourself.