May 15th 2023

Social Work and You: Interview with Andrea Trenkwalder-Egger

Retirement at the Department of Social Work | Time to say goodbye, Andrea Trenkwalder-Egger

Under the motto "Social Work and You" we asked our esteemed colleague and university professor Andrea Trenkwalder-Egger, DSA on the occasion of her retirement for an interview in which she also looks back with us on her past years at MCI | The Entrepreneurial School®.

Social work and you - how did you start?

After graduating from high school, I had my first experience with a classic Social Work institution. In the summer, I looked after children and young people from financially weak families at a summer camp in Mauterndorf on behalf of the province of Salzburg for the Youth Welfare Department.

Who or what inspires you and why?

There are many people who inspire me through their involvement in the field of Social Work. Currently, my colleague and friend Leo Kaserer, the director of Cubic, who unfortunately passed away recently, comes to mind. Leo was a gifted social worker who met addressees of Social Work with great empathy and appreciation. In his “Rückenwind”-projects I found all the aspects I described in my research on giving-oriented Social Work (as opposed to almosis- or exchange-oriented assistance). While I dealt with the topic theoretically, he put it concretely into practice.

What did you do before you started working at the MCI?

After graduating from high school and a few summer jobs, I started an apprenticeship as a stove fitter. I had to terminate this prematurely due to the bankruptcy of the company (fortunately). After my training as a certified social worker, I worked in Salzburg in a community project in Liefering, at the station social service with homeless people in Innsbruck, then in the AIDS aid and in the counseling center "Emancipation and Partnership". Most recently, I built up crime victim assistance at the association Neustart in Innsbruck. At the same time, I studied educational science and began teaching at the Academy for Social Work of the Diocese of Innsbruck.

What was your first contact with the MCI?

I remember well how my boss at the Social Academy at that time asked me to stay a little longer because a young academic had signed up to present his idea about modular management training at university level. The young man and I both had to wait in the anteroom for my boss, who was still taking an important phone call. My counterpart was about the same age and, to my astonishment, was wearing a three-piece suit (trousers, jacket and matching vest) at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. At the social academy, we taught in Social Work professional attire i.e. jeans and sneakers. The male colleagues put on suits only for going to concerts and balls. It turned out that it was Dr. Andreas Altmann. That was my first encounter with the MCI.

What made you decide to teach and work at the MCI?

After Social Work was to be taught at university level in Austria as well, all social academies were closed and the MCI took over responsibility for education.

I was happy to be able to continue teaching, initially as an external lecturer. In 2008 I found my professional home at the Department of Social Work. Together with the then head of the program, Dr. Michael Klassen, who is now Professor of Social Work in Wiesbaden, we built up the program. During this time, I was also active on the board of the Austrian Professional Association as well as in the Austrian Society for Social Work as a deputy chairman. The MCI's Social Work program soon acquired a very good reputation in Austria in terms of the professionalization of Social Work.

What is your research focus?

In my research focus, I examined the interaction between social workers and clients in the process of providing help. I wondered whether Social Work was a kind of purchase (a barter transaction: assistance for social adjustment), a handout (a one-sided event), or a gift transaction in which mutual give and take can take place, but need not. For me, it was very interesting to analyze the concept of gift in the context of Social Work, as gift-oriented action is becoming increasingly important in the digitalized space (free software, gift-oriented platforms on social media). During my research semester at UC California, Berkeley, I analyzed other gift-oriented institutions and discovered that at the heart of gift action, a moment of uncertainty is imperative. There must be a moment of uncertainty in that it is not clear what will happen: whether the gift will be reciprocated or not. I refer to this area as "empty, risky space." I am convinced that in successful interaction but also in innovative institutions such "empty risky spaces" can be found.

It is of great concern to me to emphasize the importance of such spaces where failure is potentially possible or where there is creative idleness.

What are your favorite tasks in your job?

I particularly like it when I have an "aha" moment when I'm preparing a lesson and when I notice that the students have an "aha" moment when they're teaching. For me, gaining knowledge and passing on knowledge is one of the most beautiful tasks there is.

What will you miss?

I will miss my colleagues, my students and the stimulating exchange with them, as well as the atmospheric Christmas parties.

What was your highlight during your time in the Department of Social Work?

My biggest highlight was my research semester in Berkeley in 2016/2017. The Social Work training school in Berkeley played a significant role in the 68 movement in the US. Numerous social movements (feminist, anti-racist, etc.) were initiated here. Civic engagement, coupled with a scientific foundation, can still be found today at numerous events open to the public.

This open climate changed abruptly when Donald Trump was elected President of the USA in November 2016. The evening before, we were still very confident that we would be able to celebrate the election of the first woman as American president. The next day, however, helicopters were already circling over campus. Students had organized a "silent sit-in" and distributed flyers with advice about legal assistance for non-U.S. students and their families. It was touching to witness this gesture of solidarity from so many and at the same time frightening because of the noise of the helicopters.

Thanks to the contacts I made at Berkeley, I was invited to China to teach at Zhuhai University by my colleague Weidong Wu in 2018. I lived on campus and got to know China from a very interesting side.

What legacy will you leave behind for the MCI and/or the students?

As a Social Worker, I got to know numerous people who found themselves in extremely difficult situations: Single parents who witnessed their children being marginalized due to poverty; drug-addicted people facing the outcome of being HIV-positive; young women who were unintentionally pregnant and had no support from family or friends, etc. Again and again I was overwhelmed by the creativity, energy and bravery with which addressees of Social Work approached their problem areas. It is very important to me that these people receive the best possible professional support. Social workers cannot choose the people they work with. They depend on us here at the MCI to do our best.

In this spirit, I wish my colleagues a lot of energy and joy in accompanying students on their way to one of the most interesting and exciting professions there is.

To the students I wish, in the words of our Federal President, that they will be able to recognize and apply the "elegance and beauty" of good theory and sound ethics to a turbulent practice, and that they will find as much joy and fulfillment in their professional lives as social workers as I have been able to experience.

Andrea Trenkwalder-Egger @ MCI

Andrea Trenkwalder-Egger @ MCI