GPPSwiss16: People!

It’s not easy to write about reflections of our recent #GPPSwiss16 trip, given that I’ve spent long time since I came back in thinking about lots of personal reflections. Trying to collect, organize, prioritize, or categorize these thoughts would be a hard task, so I decided to just sit down, and write!

Before travelling, I was excited not only to know about university and higher education systems, but also to meet with “people”! Everything is about people: people who speak, listen, play, build, write, sing, study, work… in summary: people who live. Being an international student, I’m used to being “abroad” and far from “home”. However, travelling from USA to Europe is kind of the next step in my “being abroad” journey. I had all the background and culture of people of my home country in my heart, and I had the American way of life in my mind, and I was ready to meet with some “other” people and explore different cultures. Therefore, everything was getting me excited to begin this trip.

I can speak a lot about the wonderful nature of Switzerland, the amazing architectures of France, and the great sculptures of Italy. However, I spent most of my time watching and thinking about people who are either living in those places or just visiting them. One major thing that attracted my attention is how people deal with time, and how this affects their life style and how do they enjoy life in general.

Basically, spending 1.5-2 hours for lunch/dinner, and 0.5-1 hour for coffee is not uncommon! The activity of eating or drinking is not only about satisfying biological need, but more about getting together and “enjoy” time chatting with friends, colleagues, and even strangers sometimes. I’d say that this is kind of expected given what we know about the “collectivist” culture in this area of the world, versus the “individualist” culture in USA. However, seeing people actually enjoying their time together, and spending long time just for such social activities provided more in depth understanding of this culture. An American friend told me that “I always feel I’m in a hurry and that I need to finish whatever I’m doing in order to go do something else, even though I may not have something else to do after!!!” While in Europe, I’ve seen that people don’t have this kind of stress, and they have real appreciation for their breaks and the time they spend to “enjoy” doing something. I can’t say they are more “relaxed”, because they still work hard. What I think is that priorities are quite different between the two continents!

Since the main objective of the program is to explore the different higher education systems in Europe, I was also interested in meeting with people who are actually affiliated with such institutions; particularly graduate students. One major observation we all had was that PhD students are not “students” in the same US meaning. They are kind of “employees”, and they are treated and paid pretty similar to the position of “research scientist”. Therefore, the term “graduate students” was used – most of the time – to refer to MSc students. As a consequence, most universities don’t work on programming for PhD student activities because they are not regarded as students. When it comes to students’ groups, PhD students sometimes join the “faculty” and “research scientists” groups, while in some cases they can join student groups. Another interesting observation is the 3-year PhD program that’s kind of a standard, and students can usually guarantee that they will graduate in 3 years. We got several questions from students there about American PhD programs, and why someone would spend 5-6 years for a PhD!!

It was my first time in France to be amongst people that I can’t understand anything of what they were saying. However, I was able to know that they were speaking French! In Switzerland it became more interesting because people there speak many languages! The challenge wasn’t to understand what they are saying, but to basically know which language they are using. In one situation, I wanted to know what language does two participants from other university are talking with during a dinner with us, the answer was “one of them is speaking German, and the other is speaking Swiss-German”! They are considered two different languages, but they two of them were able to manage a two-way conversation in those two languages! And of course, Italian and French are two official languages (plus Romansh, which I don’t think we got the chance to hear it). However, we didn’t have problem communicating since many people were able to speak English, or at least they can understand English. In many situations, and since I couldn’t understand peoples’ conversations, I was watching people faces and expressions and try to guess what would they be saying in such conversations. This made me learn more about facial expressions and body languages in such cultures, which is quite different than the US culture.

Besides the people living there, there are also the people who are visiting, our people, students travelling from USA to learn about European system. It was interesting to see the changes in group dynamics during the 12 days of the trip. People got to know each other more, mini-groups started to be formed, friendships built, and personalities show up. From the silent observant to the socially-active characters, every participant had his/her own style, and that made the trip a chance for us to explore ourselves as well as exploring others.

Finally, and despite all the differences we found among different countries and cultures, I’m personally becoming more convinced that there are lots of commonalities among people wherever they are. On the basic level, people smile, cry, and laugh with no need for translations. They love without using any words, and they feel happy, sad, mad, excited for the same reasons. And, kindness is always a global language.

This experience has been an important milestone in my life, and I believe that my participation in #GPPSwiss16 will affect my life on the long term. That’s why I believe I’ll always some back and write about this experience as time goes by, as I’m sure that my future will have many points to connect back to this wonderful European trip.

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