Ian Innocent Ogutu is the chairman of the Association of African Students at the University of Heidelberg (Verein der afrikansichen Studierenden an der Universitaet Heidelberg or VASUH) and he is always there when his fellow scholars from the continent need him.
His exemplary engagement for VASUH and his brilliant academic performance led the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst or DAAD) to award the student of legal translation its annual prize for foreign students in 2010. In an interview with The African Courier, the 23-year-old Kenyan talks about the challenges facing African students in Germany, among other issues.
TAC: Could you please tell us briefly how VASUH came into being?
Ogutu: VASUH came into being eight years ago when a group of Students – Serge Ze, Paulino Miguel and Alice Nkouna – met in a student’s hall in Heidelberg and decided to set up an organisation that would help in networking African students as well as other Black students from the Diaspora on campus.
What are the activities of your association?
Other than our colourful get-togethers and VASUH meetings, we mainly work with the City of Heidelberg’s Administration; for example, the Immigration Office and the Migrants Council as well as the University of Heidelberg’s International Office, to make life on campus easier for those who may have difficulties settling down in an environment that is far from home. We attach importance to addressing all immigration issues that may have a legal effect on one’s stay here.
What motivated you to volunteer for the association despite your strenuous academic schedule?
I was motivated by the energy of the committee members who came before and after me. Their backgrounds, character and opinions never lacked in diversity. Consequently, we never ran out of ideas when organising our activities.
Some of those members are now surgeons in practice, such as Beryl. Others are about to become medical practitioners like Lilly, Gloria, Cheriff and Esi. Bilha is pursuing her degree in artificial intelligence, while Hamet is a computer scientist. Ghislaine is a law graduate and Ann Marie is about to attain her degree in Anthropology. Avono is just about to complete his degree course in cultural studies and languages.
How has your experience been as the leader of the association?
As with all positions of responsibility, it is hardly possible to satisfy everyone, much less get people holding different views to sit down together and talk. My experience has been a challenge, ever nerve-racking and time-consuming. Effecting change never happens overnight, especially when it comes to change in the higher echelons of bureaucratic societies like this one. It takes time and patience to get a good job done. Nevertheless, VASUH has been a very fulfilling and fantastic experience. I enjoyed the highs and lows that have come with it.
What are the main challenges faced by African students in Germany?
The main challenges faced by students stem from a lack of understanding of how the society functions. Many tend to lean on their own understanding of how “the system works”, which is sometimes erroneous.
I think a lack of clear and structured focus is partly to blame. Most of us know what we want in life, but we may not always be aware how much time, discipline and energy is required to reach our goals.
How could these challenges be surmounted?
Really, there is no clear-cut solution to solving problems or dealing with challenges but one can ask those in charge or contact the responsible authorities when in doubt. It takes a few minutes to ask and get an answer but a lifetime to learn from mistakes and start over again. Time is clearly of the essence, so use it wisely!
What advice would you offer Africans studying in Germany and those planning to do so?
Be clear about your goals in life and be prepared to go through hell to get what your heart desires. Moreover, learn to ask for help!
What are your plans after finishing your studies?
I am thinking of becoming a diplomat. I imagine working for a magic circle firm like Clifford Chance, Linklaters or Baker & McKenzie, or even staying at KPMG where I am currently working. I still fancy being an international consultant. Honestly, I am still not sure.
As a young African, what do wish for your continent?
I wish and hope that we change the way we interact with one another on earth and resolve our disputes peacefully without resorting to war. I think we can be so much more.
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