#OpenVU: new habits must be formed seeking cultural variety in the university

2020 11 17 VU baznycia380x250According to the analysis of diversity and equal opportunities, in 2018, Vilnius University (VU) had 113 employees from 30 countries (which accounted for 2.3% of all VU employees), and more than 1 000 students who chose to study at VU were citizens of 70 countries. However, according to the interlocutors, VU community members should be given even more opportunities to gain experiences of otherness and diversity, therefore, there could be more both foreign employees and students in the VU.

When asked what caused such a current situation at VU, Vice-Rector for Studies Assoc. Prof. Valdas Jaskūnas says that it is necessary to take into account the society and historical environment we come from. For many years we lived in a relatively closed society with little ethnic diversity, in a society that was not open in terms of attitudes and ideas.

“Social and cultural openness came to Lithuania with independence, we experienced many influences that did not exist before, and our cultural horizon began to expand intensively. However, for a long period during the years of independence, perhaps the most urgent issue on our cultural agenda was our identity, the preservation and reconstruction of our identity. I would even say that the dominance of (identity) preservation of Lithuanian identity was very strong. We were able to construct our Lithuanian identity in the Soviet era to a very limited extent, so naturally this impulse was very strong after regaining freedom,” notes Assoc. Prof. Valdas Jaskūnas.

According to the associate professor, VU did not aspire to be the centre of attraction for other cultures, teachers or students from other countries for a long time. This explains why there is not so much diversity in our university. “For a long time, it was in these processes that we saw more threats than opportunities. But over the last 10 years, attitudes have changed. There has been a realization that opening up to different experiences is much more beneficial and it is not a threat, as it was perceived before,” explains Assoc. Prof. Valdas Jaskūnas.

The new generation, born in the years of independence, inevitably brought change. They do not always recognize the concept of previous identity, they look at the world differently, perceive it differently; they grew up surrounded by greater diversity and it is simply natural for them. This generation, which has been coming to VU for more than a decade, must employ more effort to find out how it was before. What the older generation experienced as a transformation, for those born in the years of independence, is the environment in which they grew up.

Diversity is inseparable from the challenge

Accordant to the Vice-rector, diversity is a challenge for every generation. It is a human feeling. Any novelty brings confusion and if we do not turn that confusion into an opportunity, the reactions can be various. “Change creates a feeling of insecurity,” says the interlocutor, adding that the loss of security and comfort naturally leads to resistance.

“Science is often perceived as universal field, which is not culturally determined. However, a closer look at the development of each scientific discipline would see how the scientific approach is affected in terms of culture. That cultural determination is self-evident, so it may seem that science is identical in different cultural contexts, in different geographical locations, in different European and Asian academies, but this is not the case. In the experimental sciences, content is less sensitive to cultural forms of cognition, but representatives of the social and human sciences of different academies, although they are from the same discipline, need to put much more effort into communicating. Cultural differences and academic practices are quite significant. Imagine studying geography in Lithuania, Peru and Taiwan. It would be three different geographies. And we all call it geography,” shares his insights the Vice-Rector for Studies.

The associate professor notes that sciences require a reflective approach to ourselves, we need to raise and answer the question as to why we cognize the way we cognize, why we choose certain cognitive instruments and make the assumptions we make. This reflection on one’s cognitive system is very important and inevitable in such a global world.

The vice-rector illustrated the thoughts with his memories of a really interesting situation. A scientist from Japan came to Vilnius to give lectures. During their conversation, they found out that they were both born in the same year, and the dates of birth differ by only a few days.

“Imagine meeting a person who lived at the same time as you, only in a different place, so you have very different experiences.
When we began to share the memories of what was our life when we were seven or fifteen, we realised that our childhoods were completely different: one of us grew up in Japan, the other in Soviet Lithuania. And here we met as scientists seeking to solve the same scientific problems. Naturally, our approach to problems is very different, but it is an integral part of this challenge and it would be naive to ignore this difference. It is a completely natural difference.

These experiences are not only very enriching, but are also important for scientific cognition. If we are or we want to be a global university, we need to be able to accumulate these experiences, because without them, our cognition can quickly become deceptive and biased. That is why we need foreign students and teachers. They do not have the power to change our past, but they will definitely enrich the future,” says the associate professor.

According to the interlocutor, it is very important at the university to encourage students to gain experiences of otherness and diversity for these to become the essence of their functioning and thinking. One way to achieve this goal is to create a diversity ecosystem where there are no more fears or where the student has the opportunity to overcome his/her fears with the help of the university. Students must work in mixed groups together with foreign students, perform tasks and projects together, not be afraid to make mistakes, because in the work environment there may be no conditions for making mistakes and learning from mistakes.

Mixed student groups, according to Assoc. Prof. Valdas Jaskūnas, are like social and cultural laboratories, where lack of understanding, different imaginations, different experiences, different uncertainty or lack of certainty play an important role. Skills are needed to transform this uncertainty into a definition. Therefore, the university encourages to form as many mixed groups of students as possible so that students have more international study experience. “We need to turn the experience of otherness into an educational system, strive to make it a part of teaching and learning process,” says the Vice-Rector for Studies.

It is necessary to form new habits

Equal Opportunities Coordinator Dr. Rūta Ruolytė-Verschoore says that in order to change the situation and attract more foreign students and lecturers to VU, new habits must be formed, i.e. bilingualism in communication, possibility for foreigners to receive help and self-expression services.

“One of the objectives of the Diversity and Equal Opportunities Strategy is to foster cultural diversity at the university and to strive for the equal inclusion of students and employees from abroad in the university community,” reminds Dr. Rūta Ruolytė-Verschoore and adds that in order to more actively involve foreigners in the community, it is not necessary to create new systems, but just to adapt the existing structure and infrastructure. As an example, she referred to the initiative of the Community Development Department to adapt the VU intranet to English speakers (since the autumn of this year, the VU intranet is available in English as well).

The interlocutor also draws attention to the events organized by VU: are they organised in two languages, what are the languages information about them is announced in, which languages are used to send messages after the event? It is not difficult to notice that many activities at VU are communicated only in Lithuanian. The situation is similar with services provided to foreign employees or students.

“A very similar approach once prevailed with regard to the adaptation of the environment for people with disabilities: why adapt it if we do not have 'those disabled people'? However, after creating opportunities to study, there were also those who wanted to use them. When it comes to involving foreigners, we need to change our attitudes, to form new habits. We have to constantly think about how we can encourage citizens of other countries to become members of our community, because otherwise many incoming foreigners will remain in foreign communities,” says the equal opportunities coordinator.

According to Dr. Rūta Ruolytė-Verschoore, in order to achieve changes, it is planned to publish information about events and other VU activities in Lithuanian and English in the future, and, if possible, to ensure interpretation services at the events. Non-academic units will also be encouraged to disseminate information in both languages. Before 2022, it is planned to further develop the mentoring system for foreign students from partial and all studies, to increase the availability of help and self-expression services.

The changes are already being implemented by the International Relations Division, which is improving one-stop-shop recruitment and counselling for researchers and lecturers from abroad. Foreigners coming from third countries need the most attention and help. They are assisted in handling strict migration procedures, dealing with real estate leases, and accessing public medical services. These services are constantly being developed, and sometimes help is organized for family members of incoming teachers to find work in order to establish themselves in Lithuania.

“Probably many of us have studied or worked in foreign universities under various exchange programs and we remember how good it is to discover, to be part of another university’s life, community. Therefore, we must offer such an alternative to those who work and study with us,” says the equal opportunities coordinator concluding the interview.

#OpenVU is a series of articles about the university that seeks to be open not only to scientific ideas and a variety of disciplines, but also to the diversity of its community members. The persons interviewed in the articles will share future plans, initiatives to help create a study and work environment that fosters individual, social and cultural diversity, and ensures equal opportunities for members of the university community.

You can find out about the Diversity and Equal Opportunities Strategy here.

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