Study Abroad: You Don’t Always Get What You Paid For – Interview with Natalia Lombana
This article is part of the TRAFO series “Doing Global International Relations”.
Why did you come to Germany for studying?
I came to Germany seeking to obtain an international education experience that would enrich my higher education. I come from Colombia, a so called developing country. As a young political scientist, and I would dare to say also in any other career, you always hear about the importance of getting an international education from the developed world. You are encouraged to attempt to study in the United States, Europe, Canada, or Australia. Why? Many consider these places as those that would provide state of the art knowledge, discussions that will become major debates, knowledge from those who “created it”. I was lucky enough to get the support I needed to follow a second Masters Degree in Germany. I thought I would learn things I had never imagined back home to hear of, learn from those I had so many times read in my classes and enrich my knowledge in an encompassing way, as the point of views of those academics had to be one of those most experienced. However, very soon in my studies, I came to realise you don’t always get what you paid for.
What bothered you during your studies?
During my studies in Germany I realised how rigid International Relations is as a discipline. I have to say that situations should not be generalised, but I was confronted many times with situations where I felt as the odd man out. One particular moment comes to mind. During a class called International History, the Professor divided us into two groups in order to debate about international aid and development. By mere coincidence, those of us who did not come from the “Western world” (meaning Western Europe or the United Sates) were all selected to represent the group in charge of opposing international development. The debate was quite interesting and signaled points regarding paternalism, the fact that those who “give” benefit more than those who “receive”, amongst other points. However, what came to my attention was not the debate as such but the result of the debate. In the end, the Professor who moderated and judged the debate, expressed that even though the opposing side had stronger arguments against international aid, he called the other team winner because we had to understand that development aid is just a “nice thing to do”. I have to say that it struck me.
Was that only one incidence or did you have more encounters like that?
This situation was actually exacerbated by another discussion that took place where the professor expressed that there was no “intellectual production” outside the Western World. This statement shocked me as it made me realise how hard the academic world was for those professors back home who had taught me all I know. Their voices can only be heard in the international academic world if they are able to abide by the rules of this world. And what are those rules exactly? They need to produce in English, follow theories that are related with the “Western World” and classics such as Keohane, Nye, Moravcsik and Wendt. Basically, to be able to produce something substantial, or intellectual production, you have to be part of the Ivory Tower. The production of academic work in the world goes beyond the Ivory Tower. The so called Third World produces quality work in the academic world, but which member of the “Western World” would know this if they are not willing to take it a step forward and look for it? Learning a different language than English, or going for academic exchanges in countries other than European or the United States are not options if you are to have a successful academic career.
You felt that work from other parts of the world was taken less seriously?
Related to this issue of “intellectual production” I was also confronted with the reality of the idea of hierarchy in academia. I learned very soon that academic agreements between institutions are also based on this perception of superiority amongst regions and worlds. An academic exchange between North America (limited to United States and Mexico) and Europe is a given. They perceive themselves as equals. Both sides are capable of producing relevant academic work and have the means to be able to carry them out. However, this academic collaboration or exchange is not as evident when it comes to other regions of the world. More and more, there is an acceptance of the fact that Latin American and some Asian scholars are beginning to be taken more seriously than before. Institutes in the developed world have accepted the fact that their academic production may be of the same quality as theirs. Nonetheless, they are still not seen as equals. This situation is even worse for those scholars with African descent. They are not seen as capable of producing the same quality of work as scholars in the first world. Institutes that research on Africa are monopolised by Europeans or Americans and do not always take scholars from the countries they study because “they cannot be assured that the quality of their work is sufficient for the academic world”. Scholars from this side seem to be more judged from where they come from (meaning geographical location) and where they studied, than what they have to say. Their voices are only heard if they are perceived to have the means and tools to produce sound academic research.
Would you say that this is a general problem of IR and what effects does it have?
Why do I see this as a problem? Because they are not considering the fact that the experience of living in these places can also contribute to intellectual production. It can contribute to creating different voices of one same phenomena, to promote different points of views and new perspectives. They do not come from the Ivory Tower. They come from the objects of study that scholars in the first world say they are experts on. These experiences can shed light on new understandings of a phenomenon and can enrich academic discussions of theories and how they can be set in places where the theory does not necessarily apply to. In my experience, these discussions from scholars who understand that theory ‘is not one size fits all’ open space for debate, new arguments and thus, enrich the possible understanding of a student on how to apply concepts and theory into reality.
Where does this academic power-asymmetry come from in your opinion?
I come from a country whose international policy was based for many decades on following the “Star of the North”. To follow and imitate the behaviour of the United States was the main policy. It seems to me that this story of the “Star of the North” is a similar behaviour academics have taken, specifically in International Relations. In order to be considered a successful academic you need studies outside the “Third World”. You need a PhD from the United States or Europe. You need to make sure your analysis and research is similar or carries similarities with what the Western World is interested in. As part of the Developing World you are taught to look and learn from those who are more “developed” than you. On the opposing end, it seemed to me that in the “developed world” there is no clear need to look at those who are less developed than you as points or reference. They are only there to be studied.
Looking back at your studies, what is your evaluation now?
I guess you are probably wondering who am I to criticise my experience this way. I am a dissatisfied customer. I came to Europe looking to enrich my knowledge with different points of view and ideas. I found myself enmeshed in one point of view conversations. I experienced situations where I met experts of places and cultures they had never been to. Of discussions where the phenomena had to fit their framework instead of changing their comfort zone and trying to see and analyse the same phenomena with different eyes. Isn’t it time that the hegemonic academic world of International Relations gets out of their Tower and actually adapt to the world. It is time that conversations in this field talk one on one with different scholars. In the end, the people producing academic debate in the Third World tend to follow the same structure: They are educated in the same schools. The difference is the fact that they are part of a different reality.
The Interview with Natalia Lombana was conducted by Felix Anderl.
Natalia Lombana is a political scientist with international experience in both the worlds of international organisations as well as academia. She began her political science career in Colombia where she pursued both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in Political Science. However, very early in her career she decided she needed to have more international experience and thus decided to move to Germany to follow a Masters in International Relations. Since an early stage in her studies, she developed a keen interest in subjects related to Peace Building and Conflict Resolution, specifically linked to reparations for victims of armed conflict. Through her experience as a researcher on subjects related to victims, she started focusing on aspects related to development aid as part of strategies to ensure sustainable peace.
Further Readings on TRAFO:
Antonia Witt, Felix Anderl, Stefan Kroll, Philip Wallmeier (2016), Clues, Careers, and Curricula – Doing Global International Relations, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Amitav Acharya (2016), Developing Global International Relations: What, Who, and How?, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Anthoni van Nieuwkerk (2016), Reflections on (not so) International Relations … and what scholars from the Global South can do about it, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Frank Mattheis (2016), New metres for a wider world: interregionalism and Global International Relations, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Catherine Baker (2016), South-East European Studies in the ‘House of International Relations’, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Amaya Querejazu (2016), Andean Cosmovision and Global Governanc, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Tim Rühlig (2016), Is there a Chinese understanding of International Relations?, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Jochen Kleinschmidt (2016), Global IR and Academic Authorship in Latin America: Why Inclusion Is Not a Panacea, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Anna Grindle (2016), Global Learning in Northern Ireland: Challenges, Successes and Opportunities, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Citation: Natalia Lombana, Study Abroad: You Don’t Always Get What You Paid For, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 12.12.2016, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/5547