GS Alumnus Reflects on Humanitarian Career and Time at Columbia

A difficult childhood and a learning disability led Thierry Senechal to turn away from academia at an early age. After traveling and working all over the world for several years, though, Senechal was ready to pursue an education in the United States where he discovered the School of General Studies. Senechal graduated from the School in 1992 and went on to devote his career to public service and humanitarian efforts through field work and the United Nations.

November 25, 2019

Thierry Senechal was raised in a remote village on the far northwestern seashore of Finistere (Brittany), France. Senechal found primary school challenging—sitting still for long periods and following rigid directives caused panic. He failed year after year at the most basic of subjects out of a combination of boredom and instability due to health issues, and many of his teachers simply gave up on him. The experience was humiliating, leaving permanent scars and damaging his self-esteem. 

In sixth grade, at 11, Senechal was placed in a program for children with disabilities. He learned skills that emphasized manual activities such as painting and crafting. School became much more enjoyable and rewarding as a result, but Senechal's new label as “different” was difficult to accept.

I was miserable and tired of learning only from books and other people’s experiences. I decided to experience life on my own terms and took a break from school.

Thierry Senechal '92

“It was a distressing turning point. I was forced to admit I was not a normal kid, and that everything would be different. As high school came to an end, I was miserable and tired of learning only from books and other people’s experiences,” said Senechal. “I decided to experience life on my own terms and took a break from school.”

While most of his friends went to university at age 18, Senechal traveled to the Middle East, where he performed hard labor alongside kibbutz workers in the Negev desert near the Gaza strip, irrigating cotton fields. After a few months, he went to Egypt and stayed with Bedouins in a camp in the Sinai desert and spent long periods on Talaat Harb street in Cairo. At 21, he traveled to Senegal, where he witnessed extreme poverty, hunger, and despair. In Gambia, he spent time in a prison in the capital Banjul for having the incorrect stamp on his passport. To finance these trips, he took various low-paying factory jobs.

By 22, Senechal was ready to return to his studies and to learn English—his limited fluency had made it challenging to communicate during his travels. Despite his worries about returning to school after a five-year hiatus, Senechal moved to the United States in June of 1987. 

In his first year, he learned English and further developed his interest in liberal arts, and enrolled at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. One of his professors knew that Columbia University had a dedicated college for nontraditional students re-entering academia after a break in their education, and encouraged Senechal to apply.

“Getting accepted to the School of General Studies, for me, was a miracle. I was a late arrival to higher education and my years at Columbia University had a profound impact on me,” said Senechal. 

As an undergraduate, Senechal did not want to specialize—he wanted to learn about philosophy, economics, politics. 

“Louis Levi, my favorite professor, was teaching Introduction to English Literature. Padma Desai taught a course on the Soviet economy, and Nan Rothschild taught museology and anthropology. The renowned Edward Said was on the faculty, a professor whose writing had a huge impact on my career, years later. Professor Belknap taught Dostoyevsky. The liberal arts curriculum was superb,” said Senechal. 

The School helped me develop a reservoir of inner strength, to have the courage to be different, and shaped the values I live with today.

Thierry Senechal, '92

Senechal's time at Columbia instilled that education was more than completing assignments or getting good grades, it was also seeking opportunities to volunteer, getting involved with the community, and helping fellow classmates. He became very active in student organizations, a campus newspaper, and in grassroot initiatives. 

“I learned leadership skills—much to my surprise because I always thought I was very shy,” said Senechal. “The School helped me develop a reservoir of inner strength, to have the courage to be different, and shaped the values I live with today.”

Senechal earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from GS in 1992, graduating magna cum laude and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa for academic achievements in the liberal arts. He was later accepted to graduate school at Harvard and MIT.

The campus is still filled with the same effervescent energy. To me, it is a sacred place.

Thierry Senechal '92

His liberal arts education also drew him to the United Nations Security Council. Its globalist perspective, and commitment to peace and security, aligned with his values. Senechal joined a group of experts on war damages after the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. He designed reparation mechanisms for individuals, refugees, displaced persons, and organizations affected by the war. Senechal managed a small team of UN professionals investigating the humanitarian, economic, and financial consequences of the invasion of Kuwait. The investigation also included an assessment of the environmental and natural resource damages caused by Iraqi military forces when they set fire to some 700 oil wells in Kuwait. 

“Over the years, I enjoyed working, and wherever possible, living in the field. This is my lifeblood: shedding preconceptions, learning from different perspectives, getting exposed to new thinking and ideas, talking and listening to the most vulnerable populations,” said Senechal.

Thierry Senechal preparing to take off on United Nations Airplane

Recently, in a different capacity, Senechal covered conflicts: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Congo-Brazzaville and Angolan civil wars, the Central African Republic crises, and more recently the 2014 annexation of Crimea. 

His career has been devoted to developing ground-breaking and viable policy proposals, to prevent, resolve, and mitigate conflict, and in turn to improve the lives of those in extreme need.

“The arc of my own career in public service has been an exercise in perseverance. But, I have been fortunate to witness and to participate in many great human adventures and meet extraordinary and goodhearted people. I have been blessed to work with those who can make a difference, whether decision-makers in global, regional, and local capitals, or social workers, psychologists, or emergency staff in local and remote communities. I am also grateful for the opportunity to teach international relations, and meet and work with talented students who are making career and life choices rooted in inclusion, morality, and the awareness to challenge the status quo,” said Senechal. 

Senechal is the first to admit his nostalgia for the time he spent at  Columbia as a student. He loves going back and sitting in Butler Library, hanging out in the Department of Music, and strolling through the corridors of the School of International and Public Affairs. 

“The campus is still filled with the same effervescent energy. To me, it is a sacred place,” said Senechal.