Tetyana: Our guest today is Victor Cebotari, originally from Moldova, moved to Luxembourg 13 years ago. Victor is the Strategic Advisor for Academic Affairs at the University of Luxembourg. He also volunteers for the organization Professors Without Borders. We will be talking about his story, but also about experiences that European professors can share with their colleagues from other countries, about child poverty in Luxembourg and about his home country, Moldova. Victor, nice to see you.
Victor: Thank you Tetyana, for the invitation. I’m very happy to be here.
Tetyana: Victor, you told me you first visited Luxembourg in 2004 as a student and since then always wanted to come back. Was it love from the first fight?
Victor: Well, we definitely clicked. I remember it was a very tough choice to come to Luxembourg because I was accepted at two different programs for doing my master’s; so, finally, it appealed to me to be able to do my studies in Luxembourg because the master program was a cooperation between the University of Leuven, KU Leuven in Belgium and a research institute in Luxembourg. So, this dual mobility somehow appealed to me and I decided to do this program. So, I arrived in Luxembourg in 2004 in September. So, exactly 19 years ago. And it was very good because I met my wife who was a student in the same Master program. But also, what was interesting for me is that I was placed in a host family in Luxembourg. Exactly. So, in Belval Soleuvre. So, when I experienced this life in a Luxembourgish family in Luxembourg during my semester here and then of course I went to do my semester in Belgium, which was also very nice, and after I finished my studies.
So altogether, I think in Luxembourg, we play very well. Also, back then, my girlfriend, who is currently my wife, also liked Luxembourg very much. Then, we decided to do a PhD. So, we went together, and we did a PhD in Maastricht in the Netherlands. My wife even went as far as doing a PhD on a topic relevant to Luxembourg in the Luxembourg context. So, we finished our PhD in the same year in 2010. Then, my wife received a job offer in Luxembourg. So, we decided to move to Luxembourg precisely because we felt so comfortable back in 2004. So, we moved to Luxembourg in 2010. And then, I kept my job in the Netherlands. I commuted between the Netherlands and between Maastricht and Luxembourg for a number of years. Then, I went to work for UNICEF, also commuting, and then, I finally came to work and established myself in Luxembourg in 2020 when I joined the University of Luxembourg.
And of course, our family and our, let’s say family based, was Luxembourg since 2010 which was very nice. And we are very pleased to live in this country.
Tetyana: But coming back to the time when you lived here as a student, you said it was a guest family, so it was Luxembourgish people or how was it composed? Different nationalities? So, what was it? How was that?
Victor: So, the research institute where we spent our semester here, they had an arrangement with a number of families in Luxembourg to host students. And you know that University of Miami, for instance, they’re also having a campus in Differdange, and they use the same type of system, so it was a common way of doing this. So, they looked for students in the program who spoke either French or German, and if that was the case, then they placed you with a host family in Luxembourg. So, it was a Luxembourgish family, they spoke Luxembourgish and of course they spoke French. So, we had a very nice way of getting along with each other. So, I really enjoyed, and I still keep in touch with that family.
Tetyana: So, it was really an immersion. Yes, because a lot of people coming to Luxembourg complain that they have never seen a real Luxembourger, had never had a chance to talk to a real Luxembourger.
Victor: No, for me it was the other way around. I immediately, from the first day I was in the Luxembourgish family, and we spent the weekends together, for instance, and they helped me around, they helped me with information, and they even took me to spend the national holidays within the extended family. So, during the weekend, for instance, we had dinner together.
Victor: So, it was very much immersive. So, I was very much impressed also by the hospitality of the Luxembourgish family. And I got to know the culture very well, which also helped me to get a strong connection to the country.
Tetyana: But now you’re working at the University of Luxembourg as a strategic advisor, and how has the university changed in the time when you were a student?
Victor: Well, it changed a lot. So, when I came here in 2004, the university was one year old, so it was established back in 2003.
Tetyana: Just a baby.
Victor: An infant yes. So, just now it turned 20. So, it’s out of the teenage years, if you want to put it like that. And it changed a lot. I mean, now the university is a world class university, is among the top 250 universities in the world, according to the latest ranking, and consistently over years was ranked among the best in the world for the international outlook, both in terms of students and the staff it employs. So, it’s a good university. And of course, it became as such because of a general support by the state, but also because of a philosophy. Because, as you probably know, the university is multilingual in almost all bachelor programs; out of 18 bachelor programs, 17 are bilingual trilingual. And we also have 46 master programs in which many of them are bilingual and trilingual as well. And also the research which the university is doing is world class in the area of space science and finance and law.
So, if you look now how it developed over the last 20 years, it’s amazing. I think the progress rate is probably uncommon in Europe. So, in 20 years you start from scratch and then you become part of the top 250 universities in the world in 20 years time.
Tetyana: Yeah, that’s really very impressive.
Victor, you are also volunteering for the organization Professors Without Borders, and I think we all know Doctors Without Borders, but not really about professors. How do you support this organization?
Victor: So, Professors Without Borders has been established in the UK by a team of very established scholars who wanted to provide, let’s say, help with training for teachers and students worldwide. So, now actually the CEO of this organization is based in Luxembourg, which is Caroline Varin. So, she’s a very good scholar and also a very good teacher. And I got to know Caroline and I got to know some members of the team and I got very impressed by the portfolio project they implement and the fact that everyone who is involved in this organization is donating their time and they are doing this because of a passion to make a change. How it’s said, if you cannot change the entire world, at least try to change half of it. So, this is somehow the philosophy which the team is employing in implementing this project. So, I got recently involved only; so, now, I’m helping with advising to establish a training program for industry professionals to provide up-skills, somehow a training of trainers to provide some training for these industry experts to know what type of teaching methods to apply, what type of learning objectives to employ.
Tetyana: In which country these programs will be implemented?
Victor: This doesn’t have a country; so, it’s not in Luxembourg. So, normally, professionals or teachers in different parts of the world who want to get this type of training, they’re getting in touch with professors of all borders and then, the team decides how to spend the resources and how to travel. So, the projects, generically speaking, are being implemented all over the world. So, there is a strong component also in Africa. So, I’m also considering getting involved in a project in an African country, especially in an African country I used to work in the past and I know the context, so yes, we will see how it goes.
Tetyana: And you worked previously for UNICEF, and you told me that the topic of child poverty and well-being is still close to your heart, right?
Tetyana: And you mentioned that in Luxembourg the rate of child poverty is relatively high. Why is that?
Victor: Well, I think it’s because of a high standard of living, to put it in a simple way. At the same time, we need to be aware that we speak about relative poverty. So, relative poverty is measured at 60% of a medium income of a country, which is by default very high. So, when we apply this threshold, of course a lot of children and families fall under it. So, currently, I think the relative child poverty is 17% among all children in Luxembourg. However, when we apply a measurement of material deprivation of school; so, when you combined monetary poverty, which is at 60% median income, plus material deprivation, which is basically ranking or looking at children who cannot afford the number of material items like clothing or shoes or enough heating or access to Internet, then, the percentage go a little bit higher to 24%. So, this is around the European Union average, but is relatively high for each country.
At the same time, we need to know that the country is doing really well in a number of other aspects of child wellbeing, for instance, Luxembourg is number one in early child education and care. We all know that the government implemented this free daycare for school aged children. Transport in Luxembourg is for free. So, you have access to very good schools. The government opened these international public schools in a number of locations, which provides children with additional opportunities. So, this compensates to a certain extent this monetary and material deprivation which you speak about. But poverty here is not the type of poverty we used to see in middle- and low-income countries. So, here, for instance, children have, almost all children have access to adequate nutrition and care to schooling, which leaves the relative deprivation a little bit abstract. So, of course, there is always more to do.
But I think if you want, Luxembourg is one of the best places to be a kid in Europe and in the world.
Tetyana: But which categories of population are more affected?
Victor: So basically, if you become unemployed, then as a parent, or if you become a single parent and you have two or three children you raise by yourself in Luxembourg, then, the children automatically become somehow poor because of a high threshold of 60% median income. So, yes, unemployed, single parent, and of course those who come and then, only one parent is working in Luxembourg. So, this type of category we are speaking of.
Tetyana: But you said we are not that, I mean, if compared to other European countries, Luxembourg is not well, it’s comparatively okay on this level.
Victor: Yes, when we consider all other benefits, all of the actions the government is implementing to help children. Of course, when we speak about Eastern Europe, which is part of the European Union, then, things are a little bit more difficult. But again, being a child in Luxembourg is not necessarily a deprivation. If you take it overall, it’s just only for specific parts. And of course, this can be dealt with. And I think the government is very much responsive and acting quickly like implementing this daycare, free Daycare, which I mentioned before, I think was a wonderful initiative from the government side, which aligns with the most progressive countries in Europe, like the Nordic countries. So, I think it’s well done.
Tetyana: Great. You come originally from Moldova, and now with war in Ukraine, there is a big risk that your country also can be affected. On the other hand, it looks like people here in Western Europe are starting to get tired of the topic of the war. Do you share this observation?
Victor: Well, I think countries get used to war. Also, we should remember that these years are electoral years. So, the tendency when there are elections in years is to focus on internal problems and somehow deflect from the external issues which Europe or other parts of old are facing. So, from that perspective, I think countries now are a little bit low on adrenaline, so the discourse is not as active or voicing in the past years. But I think Ukraine is still having a critical number of allies in Europe which will provide support. With regard to Moldova, yes, we are a bordering country, so, Moldova is at risk as you said. Moldova received a lot of refugees from Ukraine, and we have allocated a lot of resources to accommodate, which of course, Moldova always did because the mentality is to help the neighbor as much as possible.
And at the same time, Moldova is a neutral country. So the military is not so developed precisely because of being a small country.
Tetyana: And then, there is a Transnistrian region.
Victor: Then, there is the Transnistrian region, which has always been a problem. At the same time, we are lucky that the other border of Transnistria, is Ukraine. So, then the dynamics are latent rather than active. So, as the president of Moldova, Maia Sandu said, we are thankful for Ukraine, for watching the back for us as well. And to a certain extent this is the case because if Ukraine will not defend the country so efficiently up until now, that probably the escalation will have reached Moldova by now.
Tetyana: But what is the general sentiment in Moldova? Are people afraid?
Victor: People are getting used precisely because the history of Moldova has been always at the border between east and west, and Moldova has a history of deportation and also, of course, conflict, when during the Second World War, half of Moldovans fought on the side of Romania and the other half as part of the Soviet Union. So, this type of dynamic is not new for the country and its population. So, people tend to take it over a certain level of relaxation if you want. So far I was recently in my home country and things are running as usual and people are happy. But Moldova allowed the Ukrainian refugees to work in the country immediately, almost. So, they are also contributing to the economy of Moldova, and there is a flux between Ukraine and Moldova. As usual, children go to school. So, I think somehow it is peaceful also because the front line is a little bit further away it’s not immediately close to Odessa or close to the border.
Tetyana: Victor, just looking back at your professional life, you worked for UNICEF and a number of other interesting organizations and great organizations. Could you share with us several main lessons you learned?
Victor: Yes, so, I think one of the most important part which I learned from a professional life is whatever you do, you need to employ a certain level of discipline. So, you always have to respect certain deadlines and apply a certain level of quality and make it as such that this discipline is already a reflex. So, you are doing this almost automatically because especially for people who are coming as expats or who are coming as foreigners to live in a different country, my feeling was always that you have to step up a little bit more to be able to make yourself established in the field or in that country. So, from that perspective, a certain level of discipline is required precisely because it doesn’t matter how much talent you have, but if you don’t have discipline, the talent is not explored to its full potential.
So yes, discipline is good. The second lesson will be to be kind and to respect everyone around you. Not because this is something which is useful, but because this is a choice. So, being nice is always a choice, is not something which is part of someone’s skill. So, be nice because also the tendency in the managerial world sometimes need to be harsh and you need to be a good manager, you need to be stricter, which is not true depending on whom you’re working. Because now the new generation is having a different lifestyle and skills and they grow up differently; so, they appreciate more when you level down to their level and you are speaking to them as equal and you treat them as equal and you are being nice and polite. This, in the long term, I think pays off. Perhaps a third lesson is perhaps more personal, it is you should never send an email when you’re upset or when you are angry, you write it, let it for 24 hours, read it again.
If after 24 hours you feel that you still need to send it, you send it. If not, delete it. This will save a lot of troubles or a lot of headaches later, because when you’re angry or you are upset, the tendency is to write in a different way and to approach the issue in a different way. So, let it calm down. These lessons I learned, I think, and it was very useful and could be very useful for any professional starting a career or doing their job.
Tetyana: Victor, you know, there is such a phenomenon that people are coming here and would like coming to Luxembourg, and first, they would like to stay, like for two years, and then, they change their mind and stay longer or stay forever. Why do you think this happens?
Victor: Well, I think mainly it is due to the labor dynamics and social life. Some people like living in a multicultural, multilingual environment, some people maybe not. This is also directly linked to the labor market. Just because in order to work for many people here in Luxembourg, you have to speak different languages. English is not enough, you have to know French to a certain level, or even German. So, if these languages are not there, then, many people perhaps feel that they cannot make a career to a certain level of standards of their choice. So, many people move just because they offer this opportunity. Or maybe some of the people coming here because Luxembourg is hosting so many international organizations; not international organizations, but the headquarters of many institutions are here. Then, of course, there is a choice for always rotating their staff, which many people take their role and rotate.
Tetyana: And what advice can you give to people who just moved to Luxembourg?
Victor: Buy their place to live if they can. I remember me and my colleagues, we did a calculation at one point and we realized that if someone stays a minimum of two years here in Luxembourg, then, it’s worth buying a place to stay if they can afford, of course. And the rule of thumb, of course, is if the price they are willing to pay for the rent, plus maybe 10-20% extra, can go to paying the mortgage of something they can pay, then it’s worth doing that. Because here in Luxembourg, housing, as you know, is very difficult. It is not likely to go down, maybe stabilize, but not going down very much, just because it’s just a simple thing between the demand and offer. The demand for housing is high, the population of Luxembourg is increasing, the building lot is limited; so, there will always be a deficit of housing.
So, if you can buy, do it, stay two, three years, then, when you move, you’ll have an asset and a capital to enjoy.
Tetyana: Great. Do you have some life hacks for those who just arrived?
Victor: Yes. Visit local shops and look for organic food. Luxembourg is very good in providing organic food, and surprisingly, the organic food is not always more expensive than the normal food they find. So, if you identify places around, then, they can really enjoy some good quality organic food. And there is this organization who provides a package of fruits or vegetables every week, organic, and you can either pick them up or you can have them delivered to your door. And this is I think it’s a good thing for Luxembourg which new people may enjoy.
Tetyana: And do you mean some small shops?
Victor: Small shop or for instance, you can visit the co-labor camps where they grow vegetables and I think once per week, they have a stand there, they can sell organic fruits and vegetables. And then, of course, there are other shops in Luxembourg which can provide like Naturata, for instance. I found out that some of the vegetables and fruits there are relatively quite affordable compared to normal vegetables you find in supermarkets.
Tetyana: And do you know some hidden gems, some places to visit that are not that known?
Victor: Well, I know that everyone knows about the castles in Luxembourg, but people go mostly to visit the most visited, like Vianden, Bourscheid, there are other castles which are not in the best shape, but nevertheless, they provide a very good sense of history and a very good sense of enjoyment. And I remember that when my children were a little bit smaller, we used to visit all these places every weekend and we did this for an entire summer. And I think that children even now remember about these trips and these places where you go, of course, the castle, maybe it’s in a preserved ruin, but you have only one there and then children can enjoy walking around and seeing. So, this type of small gems, I think especially families of children will enjoy.
Tetyana: How did you find information about the castles?
Victor: Most of the information is online, but also if you make, let’s say, a group of friends, especially those who are living in the North of a country, they can tell you more. So, I think the internet provides sufficient information to find them. And I found there is this app, Éislek app, which I found quite useful as well for different types of events. And some of these events are in the vicinity of these historical places. So, if you’re getting in the habit of visiting and enjoying these events, then somehow, naturally, after a number of years you get to know all these places.
Tetyana: And where do you bring your friends? What do you show them when they come to visit you?
Victor: Well, depending on the friends, some of them, they enjoy nature, for instance. So, we go hiking; so, we enjoy hiking in the north of the country, going through the Mullerthal trail or even the small hiking routes like in the woods of Dommeldange. There are some small paths you can do in a couple of hours during the weekend. And we are doing and also visiting our favorite restaurants here in Luxembourg. We have excellent cuisine, Portuguese, Italian, French, of course, and also Luxembourgish. And we have a number of restaurants where we go and are part of our favorite places.
Tetyana: And when people come from Moldova to visit you, what are their impressions normally about Luxembourg?
Victor: Well, they enjoy it. Normally, they fly to Frankfurt, so, on the way back, we cross the Moselle region and of course, they enjoy and they are amazed about the vineyards, because, as you know, Moldova is also a wine country. So, the way the wine is grown here is a little bit different precisely because of the climate and the geography. But all my Moldovan friends, they take a good look, and they ask to stop, and they have a good picture and are amazed at the way things are going, precisely because it’s different from what they see in Moldova. And also the water and the way the countries are established. The quietness of the country is also something they observe.
Tetyana: Great. Thank you so much for the interview!
Victor: It was my pleasure. Thank you!