Alumni Profile

Shawnigan Change-Maker Alumni Interview: Stefanie von Westarp ’92

Stefanie von Westarp ’92 (Kaye’s) took time talk with Rhodri Samuel and Harriet Klumper ’09 (Renfrew) as part of an ongoing series featuring the stories that make up the legacy of Shawnigan alumni. As our selected Change-Maker Alumni feature, Stefanie shared her experiences since graduating Shawnigan, working in the field of International Development.

Stefanie’s career has led her to work in countries ranging from Madagascar, South Sudan, Haiti, and now to Venezuela, leading up to her most recent work organizing International Donors’ Conference in Solidarity with Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants. This interview took place in the weeks leading up to the event in June.
HK: What is your favourite memory of Shawnigan?

SvW: I don’t think I have a single favourite memory of Shawnigan. I mean there’s lots of really good memories… obviously Ski Week is a big highlight and having a whole mountain to yourself, skiing with friends, and trying things you wouldn’t try is always fun. I think there’s also lots of memories around rowing, jumping in the lake, running Rower’s Hill, doing runs. Then probably eating meals together. There are actually a lot of memories of sitting around the table and chatting together after lunch or dinner was done. And of course, field hockey- which played a huge part of my life as I went on to play varsity Field Hockey [at Queen’s University].
Stefanie W. playing field hockey, 1992.
Stefanie W. at Shawnigan, 1992.
HK: Who was your most influential teacher at Shawnigan?

SvW: I don’t think I had one single favourite teacher, I’m clearly not a category person with favourites.
I would say probably Mr. Cox and Mr. Lane, in the sense that both of them made me like Physics and Calculus in a way that I probably wouldn’t have. To the point that I actually thought I was going to do a minor until I applied to the Physics and Math stream in university and realized I actually was not talented in either of those areas. But I did enjoy it in high school. I mean Mr. Lane always had cool experiments, like the stereo in his Audi, things like that. Mr. Cox always had funny things to say. I think it’s important for Science to be something that boys and girls enjoy. That was something that I think I came away with that I’m not sure I would have come out with if it had been a different teacher or a different school.

HK: In what ways did your Shawnigan experience shape your life after?

SvW: I think the friends I made really changed my life. That’s not something that everyone will have at Shawnigan. Sometimes you are lucky and make very close friends in your high school years or you make friends in your university years. I think it’s very variable depending on who you happen to have in that particular year and the way that group kind of binds and gels together.

Stefanie W. and a fellow Kaye’s student, 1992.
If I think about it, it was Robin Roth [‘92 (School)] who told me about an internship opportunity- that ended up being in Pakistan, which is how I ended up going to Pakistan at 23 after my bachelors. If she hadn’t told me about that opportunity, I wouldn’t have seen it.

So I think in some ways, those opportunities lead you on certain paths. After six months in Pakistan, I realized I really liked working overseas and with different cultures, and that experience kind of piqued my interest to continue on in international development.

I do think that having those friendships–you can see Shawnigan friends once a year or once every two years–and it doesn’t matter, all the time you haven’t seen each other. I think that’s quite special.

HK: How did your career lead to where you are now?

SvW: So my internship in Pakistan was after Queen’s, and then I went on to do a Master’s at UBC where I did field research in Nepal. That was my second experience doing applied science in a research setting in a developing country. Then I applied for CIDA [Canadian International Development Agency], thanks to friends I met in Pakistan who ended up working for CIDA. I had never even thought of working for the government before, it wasn’t in my vocabulary, I didn’t know anyone who worked for the government.

Stefanie (R) and sister Caroline von Westarp ’96
in Baobab Alley in Madagascar.
So I applied, I got a job, and started doing International Development projects. Then I applied to do a professional leave, and worked in Madagascar for two years with the UN World Food Programme. It was a small office, a country office where they are always understaffed. I was coming in at 31 years old, managing a big drought response and then we were hit by a cyclone and so I was managing two responses, providing assistance to half a million people. I had a mini burnout and learned my limits, but it was also amazing because I was young 30s with no kids, living in a country where I did amazing trips both for work and with friends. You see and you do a lot, and that’s one of the things that is rewarding about living in other countries; you experience it differently than if you were a tourist.

Of course the downside is that you lose community, I see my friends that are settled in Victoria and I am aware of what you lose when you live an international lifestyle. You are far from family, far from friends, you are uprooting every four to five years. Especially when you have kids. It comes at a cost.

After Madagascar, I went back to headquarters, then went to Honduras for a bit, then there was a job opportunity in South Sudan, a two year assignment, and that was really special experience.

It was a couple years after the peace agreement had been signed, kind of this honeymoon period. I was managing a multi-donor trust fund of twenty-eight million dollars supporting the government in public sector reform. So putting in place an electronic pension system, which was Excel based because in South Sudan you had remote locations with intermittent electricity, and it was emerging from basically in and out of civil war for 50 years with Sudan. The trust fund  was supporting the Government to put in  place a pension system and you would get questions like: “If you were a rebel fighter, who previously worked for the Ministry of Finance, who came back to fight for your country’s freedom, your country becomes independent, and then you come back to work for your government in the Ministry of Finance… are those pensionable years or not?” Things like that, we were obviously hiring experts to do the actuaries.

When you work in international development, it’s not black and white at all.  It’s very grey. You’re not always like, “wow, I’m really helping here!”

Then from South Sudan I went to Haiti and then I married someone working with the UN, and followed him to Rome. I lived there for four years and was teleworking for the federal government, which was great. I’m very grateful for Global Affairs Canada being open to teleworking way before COVID! I was on maternity leave for two years and then worked there for two years doing project management related to anti-crime work.
Stefanie (front row, third from right) with first-time South Sudanese
women voters as well as UN and UK electoral observation colleagues.
Then my husband got transferred to Panama, and after a second mat leave, I started working for the Venezuela Task Force and that’s where I am doing now, still based out of Panama. A long tour around the world!

HK: So you described some of the stuff that you were helping with in South Sudan, but could you give us a sense of your day-to-day?

SvW: You know it’s funny because the day-to-day is kind of like a lot of other people’s day to day. You spend a lot of time in meetings and you spend a lot of time on the computer.

I mean it is nice to know your job is hopefully contributing to a better world, but it’s still a job. So I don’t like people to glorify the work. It’s a job, and there are lots of other equally important jobs out there: social workers working with Canadian youth, or teachers in primary schools who are really setting foundations, or nurses! There’s a lot of important work that happens in Canada, and because my job happens to be international there’s a “wow factor” because you live in lots of places.

So my job was initially assessing proposals, and managing projects and working with partners and finding solutions and making sure projects are delivering results. Now it’s managing a team doing similar work, and–in the last nine months–it’s been organizing this international donors conference in solidarity with Venezuelan refugees and migrants that Canada will host on June 17. It’s been a really big endeavour, and I’m quite proud of our work.

The Venezuela refugee and migration crisis is not well known, particularly given it is the second largest displacement crisis globally, after Syria, and continues to grow. I definitely wasn’t aware of the scope and scale before I started this job. It is an exodus because of the internal situation in Venezuela.
An example of some of the terrain Stefanie has had to
cross to get to remote sites in her career.

The vast majority of the flow of refugees and migrants has gone into about 17 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean- but Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile have the big numbers, and they’re middle-income countries. Germany accepted one million migrants and refugees in 2015. Colombia for example has accepted 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees, it’s quite a big number. It’s not that visible in the media as there are no images of boats capsizing, but now because of COVID and borders have been closed for a year, people risk their lives going through illegal crossings which are often controlled by criminal groups. Women in particular are vulnerable to human trafficking, and young men are vulnerable to being brought into gangs.

So our job was to organize this conference [International Donors’ Conference in Solidarity with Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants] which is happening on the 17th of June. We invited over 40 donor countries, and then there are the 17 host countries. The objectives are to increase visibility for the displacement crisis and fundraise. It’s been a tough year because it’s COVID-19 and everyone is dealing with the economic constraints of COVID-19, but imagine if you were a Venezuelan migrant or refugee living in one of those countries. South America is the epicentre of COVID-19. They have something like 8% of the global population and 25% of the COVID-19 deaths.

HK: So you’re talking about global awareness, how can we help?

SvW: In terms of right now, and the Venezuela crisis and the Government of Canada, I’ll give you my pitch: we have a website and a Walking Challenge. We’re asking people to walk 1% of the route that a migrant and refugee would walk, there’s a Spotify playlist with music from South America with a couple of testimonies interspersed so that people can get an awareness of what migrants experience. They can hashtag on Twitter, if they do that… It’s about raising awareness.

It’s about sending a voice of global solidarity, that’s something everyone can do. Just understand that other people have other realities, that doesn’t just apply to this crisis in South America. There are lots of situations in Canada that people need to be more aware of as well.

I think it’s about awareness, that’s all we can expect people to do: have empathy for others.

Update from Stefanie, September 2021: The conference was a success.  It raised US$2.4 billion in grants and loans from 35 donor countries, and included the participation of six new donor countries.  
Stefanie atop Peak Marojejy in Madagascar.

The interview featured in this article has been shortened for clarity and brevity.
We acknowledge with respect the Coast Salish Peoples on whose traditional lands and waterways we live, learn and play. We are grateful for the opportunity to share in this beautiful region, and we aspire to healthy and respectful relationships with those who have lived on and cared for these lands for millennia.