By Neva Newcombe
By now, most of you probably know Manuel León. He’s the type of IHEID student to be highlighted in recruitment brochures and alumni newsletters: motivated, engaged in student life, and unmistakably ambitious. He has quickly picked up a number of roles that have made him highly visible within the Institute’s community一 as a first year MDev student, he is the founder of the Macro-Development Research Initiative and represents his class within GISA一 but it is Manuel’s sincerity and unwavering friendliness that have made him such a mainstay in the community. Perhaps the most exceptional thing, though, is that he has managed all this without ever having stepped foot in Geneva.
Although it has been a pleasure for me to get to know Manuel, the purpose of this piece is not to celebrate him. This is the first installment in a series of student profiles that will attempt to illuminate corners of our lives here that do not normally get as much attention as the polished and respectable aspects of student life at IHEID, like research projects, initiatives, and GISA. While there are many wonderful things about life at the Institute, it is also the site of converging hardships, from financial pressure to immigration debacles, from divergent cultures to multifaceted identities. As IHEID students, it is already a struggle to build community around something other than shared professional trajectories and common academic interests一 the lack of common spaces and the generally formal character of Institute life make sure of that. We at the Graduate Press feel that it’s time we got to know each other’s struggles a little more deeply. That’s why I spoke to Manuel, one of approximately 100 students that have been remote the entire semester.
As some of you may know from social media, Manuel has faced a number of obstacles on his journey to the Institute, a journey which is still not complete. To begin, let’s start with Manuel’s home country, Venezuela. Venezuela has been in a state of political and economic crisis for many years now, and particularly since the inauguration of Nicolas Maduro in 2013. In the past 7 years, the political crisis has intersected with free-falling oil prices, leaving the oil-dependent economy extremely weak and throwing many Venezuelans into poverty. As Manuel explained all this to me in our first interview, it was clear that the country’s situation troubled him deeply.
“This is going to be the seventh year in a row of economic contraction,” he told me via video chat while making dinner. “Minimum wage is around two or three dollars a month.”
He said that while the official poverty rate is 55%, he thinks that the true poverty rate is around 70 or 80%, a claim which has been backed up by local university studies. Because of the high poverty rate, many people live on daily wages and have ignored stay-at-home orders during the pandemic out of sheer necessity; they have to leave the house to earn money and buy food. Hospitals in Venezuela have also faced major shortages of PPE and other medical supplies.
“The [COVID-19] cases are not controlled, not contained,” Manuel said. In short, Venezuela, already in a deepening political and economic crisis, has been crushed by the pandemic in the past eight months. It has affected millions of citizens, Manuel included. While he told me that he is grateful to have a job一 having worked as a public policy consultant for the past several years一 it has not insulated him from the crisis.
“I was earning around $150 USD per month,” he said, but starting in September his wages contracted by 66% to just $50 USD per month. During our second call, he explained his system for rationing his wages to pay for food, necessities, and his mother’s medication.
Given all of this, Manuel knew when he got his acceptance letter from IHEID that he would need financial assistance to get to Geneva. Unfortunately, he did not receive any money from the university.
“Personally,” he said, “my struggle was not having financial aid from the university. Even though I do need financial aid, they did not provide it.” Manuel told me that he had a number of frustrating exchanges with IHEID over the summer, in which he tried to explain his situation to no avail. At one point, after it was clear the Institute’s scholarship decision was final, a representative told Manuel that he might be better off dropping his studies, getting more work experience, and reapplying next year.
“I told [them] no thank you, I will not stop doing this master’s degree” Manuel said. He described how frustrating it was to be told that he needed more experience: he already has two degrees under his belt, one in economics and the other in social and political leadership. In addition to his job as a public policy consultant, he has also worked for the national assembly of Venezuela. Not one to be discouraged by setbacks, it was at this point that Manuel started a GoFundMe campaign to pay for his tuition and expenses. The campaign raised about $1,500 by the beginning of September一 about half a semester of tuition.
Fortunately, Manuel worked out a temporary solution. “Until [August],” he said, “I did not have enough, but I was hired for a project and the project is going to pay my monthly tuition fee, no savings, no enrichment or whatever, there’s no money left from that project; all that money is going directly towards the tuition payment.”
The lack of funds is part of the reason why Manuel has participated in this semester from his home in Caracas, but the other is more logistical一 the passport office in Venezuela has been closed for most of the year due to the pandemic. Until it opens, Manuel cannot get the documents he needs to come to Switzerland. If all goes according to plan, he may receive them by the spring semester, but without a scholarship or work clearance, financing a life in Geneva will be difficult, and he is still looking into options for funding.
After hearing him explain all of this over the course of two interviews, what stuck with me most was not the exceptional difficulty of Manuel’s situation, but his attitude in spite of it. Although there were moments when he sounded impassioned or emotional, he never seemed discouraged. He told me that he felt deeply for Venezuela, and that he wanted to get his degree from IHEID so that he could go back home and improve people’s lives. This, he explained, is what keeps him going.
While Manuel’s story seems exceptional in many respects, it occurred to me after we spoke that he may not be alone. As I said earlier, we hear a very narrow range of stories about student life at the Institute. Almost all of them cast the school and our community in a favorable light, while more complicated stories rarely reach the surface. Absolutely, IHEID students have an imperative to critique the Institute一 for example, how can it be that a student coming from a country in crisis with limited personal resources qualifies for $0 in financial assistance? However, IHEID students must also reflect a critical gaze back at themselves and ask important questions about the way we operate as a community. What kind of student stories are visible at IHEID, and what stories get buried? Where do non-elites fit into this community?
The student body at the Graduate Institute is among the most diverse in the world. It can be difficult to capture the colossal range of experiences of people coming from all sorts of backgrounds, countries, cultures, races, genders, and classes. If there is something we all might have in common, it’s the thing Manuel identified as his ultimate motivator: the desire to help people. Once we get to the people in our immediate vicinity, we can get started on the rest of the world.
If you would like to help Manuel get to Geneva, you can find his GoFundMe link here.
This piece is part of a new series called “On Diversity and Disparity” from the Graduate Press. “On Diversity and Disparity” explores the vast differences in student lives through a critical lens, and asks how these differences create disparities in our experiences at the Graduate Institute and beyond. If you or anyone you know might be interested in being profiled for this series, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.