An Interview with Karin Schelzig
Karin Schelzig's family moved to Manila in 1985. She and her three brothers enrolled at the German school, which at that time was still located in Pasig. She is now with the Asian Development Bank where her work focuses on designing and implementing large social protection and poverty reduction initiatives in Southeast Asia.
Karin Schelzig (extreme left) with classmate Olivia Kantner and their respective daughters on a visit to Manila in 2016.
Why did you enrol in the German School Manila and how long were you there?
My family moved to Manila in 1985, when I was 12 years old. My father Werner worked at the Asian Development Bank. I started 9th grade at the German School (known as the Jose Rizal School) and was there for two years, but only because 10th grade was the highest grade offered. My three brothers Erik, Dieter & Jürgen were in 5th, 4th, and 2nd grade. I moved on to the International School for the 1987/88 school year and ultimately graduated from there in 1989, but my brothers stayed on at DSM for a number of years. The school was located in the Valle Verde neighbourhood, and there were only about 100 kids. My father joined the executive board as treasurer and later chairman of the board. He was the father of "at least 4% of the students," he used to say.
Did the years of schooling at DSM shape you personally? Would you be a different person if you had not had this experience? To what extent? Is there an experience that expresses this in particular?
Of course! DSM was great, a small school with a close-knit community and great teachers. Our classes were small - we were maybe 10-12 kids per class - which meant lots of individual attention. I think the small size also created a sense of belonging. I remember how the school and community really came together during the February 1986 People Power revolution that ultimately ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Clearly the school had to close with the civil unrest - and at the time nobody really knew what the outcome would be - but it couldn't stay closed indefinitely, so classes were held at DSM families' houses in Forbes & Dasmariñas villages. My parents hosted the 5th grade class, I remember the big blackboard set up in our dining room. My class went to my friend Monica's house. The teachers drove around among the houses for lessons. I think this lasted for maybe 2 weeks? I imagine it might have been a bit stressful for the parents & teachers, but it was pretty exciting and fun for the kids. (And thankfully it was ultimately a non-violent revolution with a positive outcome for the country.)
Beyond DSM, growing up in the Philippines clearly left an indelible impression on me. As a German/American kid living in a developing country, I became aware of extreme poverty and inequality at a fairly young age. This clearly stayed with me as I later gravitated toward studying international development and social policy. I have now worked in development with a focus on poverty and social protection for more than 20 years, the last 14 in Southeast Asia, trying to make a difference in poor people’s lives. So you could say my secondary school years in the Philippines had a major impact on who I am and what I do today.
What are some of the most beautiful from this time?
There are so many. At school I really liked project week, a classroom-without-walls-week where kids picked a topic and spent the week doing neat things. Kids from grades 5-10 were mixed together depending on what they chose. One year we learned about the airport and civil aviation – I think someone’s father was with Lufthansa (which actually used to fly to Manila!) so we had all access to parts of NAIA that most people never see. Something tells me this wouldn’t be possible today with tighter airport security. Another year it was hotel & restaurant management and – again through a student’s parent who was the general manager – we got to go behind the scenes at the Peninsula hotel for a week.
I remember our fantastic 10th grade excursion, spending a week at the beach in Anilao with Ms. Stache, our teacher. Sports day was always a favourite. And of course, the various school events for German holidays that brought everyone together.
Outside of school I remember lots of time spent with friends, riding bikes around the neighborhood, and family gatherings in people’s gardens. We went on family road trip adventures, driving up to the mountains of Baguio and down to the beaches of Batangas... all in the days before Google Maps – how did my parents do it? I remember we had a well-used book called Luzon by car. We went to Boracay for the first time over the Easter break in 1986, when it was an amazing unspoiled paradise of an island with no electricity, only nipa huts, and an absolutely pristine beach. We were so lucky.
What conflicts and challenges did you have to overcome?
Not a conflict but definitely a challenge: when I was in the 10th grade the school decided to introduce formal Mittlere Reife exams, with officials sent from Germany to monitor and with written and oral examinations in front of a panel of assessors. Ours was the first class to go through this and I remember being so nervous! But all went well in the end, and it was fantastic preparation for IB exams two years later.
Another challenge was the time when the whole school – which was part of the University of Life campus – flooded during a typhoon and the hallways and classrooms were in knee-deep water. I remember teachers with trousers rolled up over their knees wading down the hallway.
Would you rather send your children to a school like ours or to a different one?
I would have loved to send my daughter (Anna, now 11) to a German school when she was younger – unfortunately there wasn’t one in Cambodia, where we lived from 2008-2014. But in many ways life in Phnom Penh at the time was simpler, easier, and Anna did have a very similar early education at a small international kindergarten and later at the International School of Phnom Penh. Like the DSM of the 1980s, ISPP was a small school with a very similar close-knit community of families, teachers, and school administration, which I miss very much!
What is particularly important to you in terms of education and upbringing? To what extent did you find this at the DSM back then?
DSM was a place where I always felt comfortable and at home. I was the new kid in 9th grade, which is not always easy, but adjusting wasn’t hard at all in a small, welcoming school. I made great friends and am still in touch with some of them today, all these years later. I remember loving school, being challenged and receiving positive encouragement from my teachers. DSM also did its best to promote sports and the arts, especially music, introducing a band class for the first time while I was there (I chose to play the saxophone). Now a mother myself, I am raising my daughter in much the same way I was raised, as a third culture kid. I hope her international education and upbringing will make her confident, curious, creative and caring, aware of global issues, and with an international perspective. I think I got many of those things from my time at DSM.
What do the Philippines as a country and the people there mean to you today?
I have lived in the Philippines off and on for more than 30 years and have spent more time here than in any other country. When I left for university my parents remained in Manila for another 10 years, so my brothers and I always came home to Manila for the holidays. I studied international affairs, development studies and social policy and ended up doing PhD research on urban poverty in the Philippines. I spent a year in the late 1990s doing field work in an urban informal settlement along the railway tracks near Magallanes. I joined the Asian Development Bank as a young professional in 2004 and still work there today, focusing on poverty issues in the region, and designing and implementing large social protection and poverty reduction initiatives like the Pantawid Pamilya conditional cash transfer program which helps nearly 4.5 million poor Filipino families keep their children healthy and send them to school. My daughter was born here, and we’ve lived in Makati for the last 4 years since returning from Cambodia, so the Philippines is really like my adopted home. My Tagalog is truly terrible though, and I feel guilty about that!