Posted on July 11, 2023 by Amanda Cerreto

Rocio Guenther, MPA

Rocio Guenther, MPA

M.P.A. graduate Rocío Guenther ’22 has been accepted into the prestigious German Chancellor Fellowship program to work on a multimedia project about the local government’s response to immigration. Each year, only 10 applicants from the United States are selected for this fellowship, which is targeted at young professionals who are likely to become thought leaders in their fields.

rocio-g-utsa-grad-1.jpgThe German Chancellor Fellowship provides participants with the opportunity to spend one year in Germany, where they network with other prospective leaders from around the world and explore new solutions to global issues. The program builds on Germany’s established and growing reputation as a favored destination for problem-focused international dialogue and a meeting place for tomorrow’s international leaders.

Guenther was born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico and came to San Antonio to complete her undergraduate degree at Trinity University. After graduation, she worked as a reporter at the San Antonio Report.

Born with a global mindset, Guenther’s assignments in city development evolved to cover immigration, the asylum-seeking process and more.

“I was always so inspired by this topic because it’s so complex,” Guenther said. “It’s hard to humanize the issue because it’s so politicized, but the desire to really dig into human stories never left me.”

That desire stayed with Guenther as she moved into a new role with the City of San Antonio in the International Relations Office. Her first key project was to help organize the city’s Tri-Centennial celebrations, which included the visit of 11 sister cities to San Antonio from all over the world. One of those cities included Darmstadt, Germany, the place where Guenther will live to complete her fellowship.

During a special delegation visit from Darmstadt leaders, Guenther’s office put together a panel discussion about Dreamers and the current state of immigration in San Antonio and across the United States. At that time, Germany had just received an influx of refugees and immigrants from Syria, and officials from Darmstadt were very interested to learn how San Antonio handled immigration numbers. 

“I saw a lot of similarities between our two cities when it came to the approach of compassion with immigration, and welcoming and helping those in need,” Guenther said. 

rocio-g-city-hall.jpgAs Guenther continued to work in city relations and moved into the Office of the Mayor, she enrolled in the Master of Public Administration program at UTSA in 2019. The M.P.A. program brings community-relevant research and public sector experience to the classroom, enabling students to broaden their world views and develop analytic and decision-making skills. The program inspires students to fulfill their full potential as public servants who formulate and solve complex problems collaboratively.

“One of the cool things about the program for me was working in government and having that city experience, but then looking at the academic side of things…‘How does bureaucracy work? What is public policy?’” she said. “It was a great marriage of theory and practice, and seeing how some of it does align and how sometimes the theory and practice is so different.”

“Rocío possesses both the professional and the people skills to be highly effective in her public service career,” said Branco Ponomariov, associate professor of public administration. “Further prepared by this wonderful opportunity, she will accomplish great things.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit San Antonio, Guenther’s job changed. Yet, she remained positive. Her job shifted from helping citizens with concerns like potholes and trash pickup to helping residents apply for rental assistance and get access to vaccines. While she was working on the frontlines, there was still that space in her head itching to humanize these stories, from the daily tragedies to the long-term stories of triumph.

It was this calling and desire that led her to apply for the German Chancellor Fellowship.

“I saw the link and thought of how much I’d love to deep dive into a special project,” she said.

After completing her M.P.A. while working for the city during a pandemic, she felt as if she was running on survival mode and thought it would be a great chance to refocus on her passion.

The application process is incredibly competitive and intense, involving project proposals, letters of recommendation, demonstrated leadership potential and the support of a host institution before you are even accepted into the program.

“I had no idea who I could cold-call in Germany and ask to host me,” Guenther said. “But I went back to that connection we had with our sister city in Darmstadt, and the Germans that came to San Antonio, and that panel discussion we had about immigration and remembered how much I missed storytelling and journalism.”

As she considered the possibilities, Guenther began seeing the ways she could marry her M.P.A. with her passion for storytelling, and so it was decided: She would begin a project that looks at local government response to an influx of migration, and compare lessons and challenges from two transatlantic cities that share a relationship.

Guenther reached out to her contact in Darmstadt and proposed the idea, and City Councilman Michael Kolmer immediately agreed to host her. She began the formal application process last fall, interviewing in early March of this year and finding out in April that she had been accepted.

rocio_g_and_mayor.jpgWord of her project proposal and ideas began to take off before the fellowship even had its start in October. Councilman Kolmer connected Guenther with the Schader Foundation, a leading social sciences foundation located in Darmstadt. They were very interested in Guenther’s proposal and suggested she apply for the Schader Residence, a program that houses social scientists and researchers under the umbrella of the Schader Foundation.

“It’s extra exciting, because I’m being co-hosted,” Guenther said. “The City of Darmstadt is my main host, but the Schader Foundation is providing additional support and networking. It will be a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Guenther’s plan is to leverage these connections and dive into the differences and similarities to her work in the City of San Antonio.

“Darmstadt is tackling climate change and they also have a climate plan, just like San Antonio,” she said. “They are also grappling with new arrivals and immigration and how our cities are changing.”

While the fellowship starts this October, Guenther is heading over to Germany this month for a three-month intensive language course in Bonn, Germany. Once she begins the fellowship, she plans to put together a multimedia project on her findings, including articles, photos, interviews with residents and more.

Coming out of the pandemic, amid a historic level of burnout and an increasingly polarized world, Guenther sees huge potential not only for her own personal development, but for increasing awareness around global topics.

“Even though I’m leaving, I still want to have a connection to San Antonio,” Guenther said. “I owe San Antonio so much. A lot of people don't know just how strong our international ties are, and I want to add to that momentum and be a bridge builder.”

— Amanda Cerreto