“I wanted something that would push me out of my comfort zone, take me to new places and allow me to make a tangible impact”
An alumni life: Janina Schnick (Magdalene 2007) on what it really takes to work in international development.
Janina Schnick’s career in international development has taken her across Europe, Africa and Latin America, with a clear focus on improving lives wherever she can. But she admits that things haven’t always been so clear cut.
“When I first arrived at Magdalene in 2007, I knew I wanted an international career, but I didn’t have a clear understanding of what that would look like at first,” she says. “I just knew I wanted something that would push me out of my comfort zone, take me to new places and allow me to make a tangible impact. Sixteen years on, contributing to solutions that improve people’s lives is one of the most motivating things about what I do,” she says.
After graduating in Modern Languages – “a broad subject, allowing me to explore the culture, history and politics of a language area” – she took an internship at the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation in Geneva, before becoming a policy analyst at a consulting firm for global health organisations. She spent a year studying for a Master’s at the Institute of Development Studies in Brighton and, since then, her various roles have taken her to countries including Guinea, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and Kenya, where she lived for five years.
One of her proudest moments is helping to establish the One Acre Fund in Uganda – a programme that provides smallholder farmers with inputs and training to increase their yields and incomes. “When I joined, the programme was already well established in Kenya, where I was based,” she says. “I helped pave the way for expansion to Uganda by building a small government relations team there that was responsible for getting government buy-in. The programme grew from a tiny trial to about 12,000 farmers while I was there. I found it really motivating to see the results of my work on the ground, knowing that thousands of farmers would now have the opportunity to improve their lives.”
Through working in the agriculture sector, she developed an interest in the impact of climate change, and is currently a project manager at myclimate, based in Berlin. “I work at the intersection of climate change and international development now, planning climate mitigation projects in developing countries,” Schnick says.
One of those projects is in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. “They have these big old buses that they cram a lot of people into – they are often colourfully painted and have become a cultural symbol,” she explains. “But they’re also massive polluters. So we’re working on replacing all the engines with electric ones that can be charged with solar panels. That way you preserve the cultural symbol but just make it a lot cleaner, and it creates jobs, as people have to operate the charging stations.”
Besides the reward of using her skills for the greater good, the variety of projects she works on, in both scope and location, means her job is never dull. “I get bored quickly, so I like being challenged in everyday life,” she says. “I like discovering new countries and cultures. That’s one of the most exciting parts of my job. You also learn a lot when you’re placed in unfamiliar situations. It builds character.”
Such is Schnick’s love for the sector, she is keen to encourage others into it, and spends time mentoring and supporting students interested in a career in international development. This includes writing blog posts with career advice, appearing on Zoom panels alongside other alumni in International Development, and being part of the university’s alumni platform, through which students can contact her to ask questions. “I think it’s a very worthwhile career, and the sector is very diverse and exciting, but it can be hard to navigate. I’m trying to help make it less obscure.”
It’s not just the students who benefit. “I definitely get a lot out of it as well. I find the exchanges really rewarding. I like learning about what they want to do and what they think about different topics. I’m always so impressed with how prepared they are.”
Her advice includes encouraging students to get some experience in the countries they might want to work in. “I think it’s important to get that exposure and get a sense of what it’s like before entering the sector, because it’s not right for everyone.” She’s also keen to reassure students that there is no “perfect” career path. “I have no hesitation talking about failure and explaining that although my CV may look like it was all planned, it wasn’t. Everyone is telling a story on their CV, so don’t be intimidated by that. And don’t be discouraged if you don’t tick all the boxes, because no one does.”
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