Flemings in the UK: An Jacobs on working for the most British of institutions


In the second instalment of our series on Flemish people living and working in the UK, we talk to An Jacobs, who’s a lecturer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst

Always in the loop

The journey from Limburg to south-east England isn’t an especially long one, but An Jacobs from Genk did it the long way round.

Her route has taken in a music degree, a spot of performing arts, working for a think-tank in Switzerland and as a political advisor to the EU mission in Kosovo. And for the past two years, she’s been a senior lecturer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, that most British of institutions.

“My first degree was in music, and I tried teaching and performing arts for a while,” she says of her early academic career. Then, while working towards a degree in European studies and international relations in Maastricht, she discovered a real interest in foreign policy and security.

A job with the Centre for Security Studies in Zurich followed, where she carried out research into European security and defence policy, and EU-Africa relations. It was during her two years in Kosovo that she met her British partner.

“The agreement was that we both would find a job either in Belgium or in England, and then this position came up,” she says, referring to Sandhurst. “But I didn’t think I was going to be successful, applying to work at such a British institution. Now I love it.”

Is it unusual for foreigners to be taken on there? “Historically, staff have mainly been British, and they’re still the majority, of course,” she explains, “but since I’ve joined we’ve had quite a few other foreigners, and it’s becoming a bit of a mix. In my department particularly, though that might be down to the nature of what we teach. It’s interesting for our subjects to have people from different places.”

Global vision

The department she’s referring to is Defence and International Affairs, and it covers international relations, security policy, armed conflict, terrorism, counter-terrorism, insurgencies and more.

“It’s really about understanding current world conflicts, their causes and consequences, and which actors are involved,” she explains. The British army has been heavily engaged in the most challenging recent conflicts, which makes teaching the officers a rewarding job. “We give the cadets a framework for their deployment,” she says, “to help them understand the operational context and the world they’re operating in.”

It’s current, it’s immediate, and that’s one of the things I love about the job

- An Jacobs

That’s a world that’s never out of the news, not least in the light of last month’s terrorist attacks in Brussels. “It’s current, it’s immediate, and that’s one of the things I love about the job,” says Jacobs. “I have to be constantly following what’s happening in the world, in a substantial amount of depth, which is what keeps it fresh for me. In a lot of academic jobs you teach the same thing over and over again, and it can get a bit boring. Whereas I get paid to study what’s changing in the world and explain it.”

This genuine interest in international affairs and security issues is key to her job. But, Jacobs points out, it’s probably just as important to understand what the military is all about and to develop both working relationships with military colleagues and positive interactions with the cadets.

Right at home

Cadets who are accepted to Sandhurst have an extremely tough programme ahead of them. “They get physical training, military tactics, academic subjects, exercises and so on, all mixed up and often on the same days,” says Jacobs. “The officer cadets are extremely tired, but they’re eager to learn, and have a good sense of humour, which I appreciate. I really admire them for what they do.”

This isn’t Jacobs’ first time living in England; she also did her PhD in Manchester. Having lived in both north and south, has she noticed a divide? “It’s very different, but I was also at different stages in my life and career,” she says. “Being a student in Manchester was great: I met some fun people, enjoyed the music scene, and it was a really terrific experience. For the life I had, Manchester was perfect, but for the life I have now, I think Hampshire is ideal.”

It’s a lovely part of the world, she says: London on the doorstep, the south coast not far away and plenty of nice countryside and small market towns nearby. “I love living here, and I find that the Brits have a great sense of humour,” she says. “I sometimes forget that I’m not from here, I just get on with life.”

Asked what she does in her free time, she laughs. “Free time? I work! Whenever I switch on the telly, my work is always there. I always end up thinking, ‘Oh, I really need to read up on that, I’m not sure I know enough about it’.”