In 2014, Gaia obtained an MSc in Comparative and International Politics from the University of Leuven, Belgium. Inspired by her dissertation on traditional leaders and rural development in South Africa, she decided to pursue a Specialised Masters degree in International Cooperation and Development at Università Cattolica in Milan, Italy. In the future, Gaia aspires to professionally combine her enjoyment of political analysis and her passion for socio-economic development in an international setting, while acquiring country or region-specific expertise. Gaia Verhulst's mentor is Georgia-Zozeta Miliopoulou.
Q: Tell us a few things about your country, and also your life's story!
A: I am from Belgium, which is a rather small country (around 11 million people) that lies in the heart of Europe, with Brussels as its capital. We are quite a complex country, with different administrative regions and national languages. Therefore, I usually add that I am from the Flemish part of Belgium when I meet new people - which means that I speak Flemish (Dutch) as a first language and French as a second language.
It is actually through living an international life and meeting people from other cultures that I have learned more about my own country over the years. It’s always interesting to hear the reaction of people when I tell them I am from Belgium. Everyone has a different perception, recollection or insight on the country. Some people ask me whether I speak German, some automatically assume I only speak French, some compliment me on our beers and chocolate, some tell me they love Brussels and others have little to no knowledge on my country.
It always accounts for interesting conversations and vice versa. I have always loved travelling and living abroad - in the first place because I love meeting and discovering new people. This is something I have done ever since I was little: starting from travelling with my family in my youth, to moving to Paris when I was 19 years old for a Erasmus exchange. At the time, I was studying political sciences in my hometown of Leuven at the University of Leuven. In Paris, I discovered my appetite for living a flexible and adventurous life and my studies and career have helped me to feed into this appetite. During my master, I travelled to South Africa to conduct research for my thesis, which prompted me to specialise in international development cooperation by applying for a Masters programme in Milan, Italy. I lived there for a year, during which I lived in South Africa for three months for an internship. I returned to Belgium for 2 years and now I am currently living in Paris, France for my profession.
Belgium will always be my home, but it’s through discovering the rest of the world that I learn to appreciate it in a unique way. I can best explain by a quote from Nelson Mandela: “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered."
Q: What is your view of the world as it is today? And how do you define the concept of a better world?
A: Depending on the perspective you use to analyse the world as it is today, many different views could arise and I constantly shift between these different views. I have a tendency to look at the world from a political perspective, mainly due to my academic background and general interests, which often can result in a sentiment that things aren’t getting better. We could get lost in all the negative sentiments that circulate today - conflict, insecurity, inequality, corruption, human rights violations, populism.
But I have also learned we have to push ourselves to look for the positives as well as we are all part of the same humanity and ultimately, we only have each other. There are many things I would want to see change but ultimately, a better world is a world where there are less inequality and gross injustice putting people at risk and suffering.
Q: What are some of the key challenges in your society?
A: Relating back to my desire for more equality and justice, I would say my society still struggles with sharing its wealth and opportunities with all of its members. We often overlook the fact that happiness and success are not a given but something that grows from the individual, but for that the individual needs to be in a context where opportunities and choices are possible. This is why I do appreciate my roots because I have seen how I was able to fulfill dreams and how my environment helped me achieve them. Once again, I am inspired by Nelson Mandela and I firmly believe in his following statement: “The purpose of freedom is to create it for others”. When I look back at my own path, I believe my sense of equality and justice urged me to combine my studies of political sciences with a specialisation in international development cooperation. I remember that I was fascinated by the world of politics, but that I felt that some key elements were still missing. I wanted to address why something the political system does not work, why it does not work in favour for everyone and why we - despite all good intended efforts - still don’t live in an equal world. At the time, I decided to specialise in international development cooperation so that my passion for political analysis could be combined with my passion for socio-economic development.
Q: As a young individual what are a few of the hurdles that you had to overcome up until today?
A: Over the last two years, I was presented with the challenge of staying positive despite the negative around me - not only on a global but also on a personal level. Being a young woman, trying to make a career and a happy personal life for yourself in an intertwined and increasingly complex world - it is a challenge and it comes with disappointments and failures. The way I was able to overcome these challenges was through the power of the mind - which reflects on everything else. I forced myself to take positive steps, to get rid of negative influences, to stay focused on my goals, to take care of my health and well-being and to keep working at my dreams.
Q: Why is the role of a mentor important for you?
A: A mentor can guide you along the way, as she/he has already walked the path before you and can inspire you simply by sharing their own experiences and insights. As young professionals we can sometimes get overwhelmed by doubt and options - sometimes we see no options, sometimes we see too many options. A mentor can help you navigate through your own strengths and goals, and help you channel your energy and motivation towards tangible goals.
Q: Do you have a lesson that life has taught you and you would like to share?
A: I have learned that the power of the mind is an extremely powerful tool and therefore it is extremely important to learn how to master it. Having your mind focused and strong can help you navigate through all hurdles, both in your personal and professional life. If you can keep the conviction that you are able to achieve a certain goal, for example, you will have the drive to undertake all the little steps necessary to get there. If you are feeling unhappy about a certain situation, a strong mind will help you to distance yourself from the negative influences. You need to trust the process and you need a strong mind to do this. It all comes down to the same advice: never give up and always keep going, and try to turn every negative situation around - no matter how small the action is.
Q: Name a project, a foundation or a person in your country that you think is doing great work in helping improve other people's lives!
A: I have a lot of respect for people who work in the child/youth care system in Belgium - people that dedicate their lives to children of others, that through no fault of their own find themselves in situations that are not conducive to their well-being. I have the utmost respect for people who strive for the inclusion of these children in society and I believe it our collective responsibility to make sure that these children are not left behind. Children are the future and they all deserve the same opportunities and chances at happiness.
Q: Share with us a phrase, a poem or a story that you love or you find interesting!
A: “To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”
― Arundhati Roy
Q: Tell us one thing that you have learned from your mentor.
A: My mentor taught me that in order to fulfil your own potential, you need to learn how to keep your personal interest at heart - regardless of the professional position you are holding. You are at your best when you are in an environment where your qualities and capabilities to shine and grow, not only will you be at your best but you will be able to bring the best kind of contribution to the team you are working in.