“Nothing beats personal experience”

Students share their exchange experiences with other students. Photograph: Johannes Dietschi © ZHdK

“Are exchange semesters still timely in the age of digitalisation and climate change,” the contribution asks. We queried Bettina Ganz, head of ZHdK’s International Office, who has been sending students out into the world and welcoming others from all over the world for the past 22 years.

BY ISABELLE VLOEMANS
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Isabelle Vloemans: ZHdK welcomes about 60 exchange students each semester and cooperates with 140 universities worldwide, in order to offer its students attractive exchange opportunities. Why go to all the trouble?
Bettina Ganz: We would like to open up new fields for our students. Ideally, a university will not only convey subject-specific knowledge, but also contextual knowledge and skills. And these include intercultural and transcultural skills.

What does this mean for arts university students in particular?
Spending half a year in Asia could be invaluable for a design student from Zurich. She might be working on a project with Chinese partners, and then the knowledge she acquired on her exchange, for instance insights into the Chinese approach to planning, might prove immensely helpful. Just as it might make a lasting impact on a musician if he experiences how a conductor and an orchestra work together in a country where hierarchy has a completely different meaning than in Switzerland. Now all of this can be looked up of course. Just as one can look up how to lead a team or how to be father. But first-hand experience provides a much more intense learning opportunity than reading self-help manuals.

So Google doesn’t help understand what students experience first-hand on an exchange?
No, I don’ think so. Students already begin tackling the key questions when they apply for an exchange: Do I really want to go away? Where do I want to go? And why? Some students sign up for a language course before they go abroad. There are tremendous differences between individuals and a lot depends on how open one is. Over the years, I’ve been struck by the fact that the recipients of ZHdK’s talent awards for outstanding degree work are strikingly often students who did an exchange.

If one believes Franziska Nyffenegger and Kathrin Passig, this preoccupation doesn’t necessarily result in an exciting “returnee report,” which homecomers are required to submit to the International Office.
Well, I’m sure that has partly to do with the fact that these reports must be submitted in writing. Not all of us are Alexander von Humboldt. But the presentations that homecomers give to their fellow students, some of which I go along to, are usually very stimulating. They often spark deeper and further-reaching reflections in the subsequent discussions.

Franziska Nyffenegger and Kathrin Passig suggest talking to a Venezuelan waitress at the campus café rather than going on an exchange to Venezuela. Is that a valid alternative?
I would suggest doing one without forgoing the other. If I’ve been to Venezuela, I stand a far greater chance of striking up a conversation with a member of the canteen staff from there.

Even those who think exchanges are a good thing might object that they’re not sustainable; the international competence developed on an exchange doesn’t justify the air miles. Would you agree?
I agree that it’s difficult to reconcile ecological sustainability with air travel. I believe it’s correct and important that we discuss our approach to staff travel at ZHdK. At least the students are gone for half a year. These aren’t short trips. And, of course, we should welcome the increasing number of inter-university collaborations that take place via Skype for example. I remember a project that one of our Cast / Audiovisual Media students did via Skype with peers from Beijing. The result was a full-length animation film.

IV: Could you tell me about a trip from which brought home insights that you wouldn’t have had sitting on your sofa in Zurich?
I visited Cornwall and Bristol in June 2016. Arriving three days after Brexit was very enlightening. However problematic I find the decision to leave Europe, talking to locals gave me a slightly better understanding how this had happened. So, for instance, a university town like Bristol fought hard against Brexit, arguing that “it’s bad for higher education.” But higher education is closed to many people in Britian, because they simply can’t afford the exorbitant tuition fees. If people explain these matters to you in conversation, that gives you other insights than reading the headlines.

Bettina Ganz Gorgi (bettina.ganz@zhdk.ch) is head of ZHdK’s International Office. She enjoys travelling, especially to places whose language she knows, which makes it easier to get in contact with local people.
Isabelle Vloemans is a project manager at ZHdK University Communications. She likes visiting friends and family.