Monday, November 26, 2012

Study Days in Lithuania: Become an Ambassador of Higher Education

Study Days in Lithuania: Become an Ambassador of Higher Education. And that’s exactly what I became after an intense two-day seminar in Druskininkai, South-Lithuania. A picturesque spa town only five kilometers away from the Belarusian border. Accompanied by fellow full time degree students Linara (Kazakhstan), Fengyi (China) and coordinators Egle and Zymante from the International Office, a personal driver took us from the academic heart of Kaunas to the luxurious appearing hotel Europe Royale. I shared my room with Fengyi, who immediately fell down on the bed, stating how lovely, big and soft it was. 

After a quick lunch we started off with a welcome word in all of the attendants’ languages. Kick-off of the event: my “goedemiddag” (good afternoon) in Dutch. The introduction was followed by some more Dutchness. Thijs van Vught, marketing specialist at Tilburg University, gave a presentation on how to stay unique on the internet – marketing on-line. Being used to lectures given by gifted Lithuanian professors, still, my heart is filled with joy when seeing a Dutchmen presenting in a typical Dutch interactive way with some little jokes in between but keeping the main message in mind. Mr. van Vught gave exactly such a presentation which was definitely appreciated by all students and coordinators considering the broad smiles on their faces and active participation when questions were asked. He gave us an insight in how much effort it costs to make students aware of a study program to the point of applying and enrolling. It’s expensive and events like study fairs are not always as lucrative (in aiming to get a student enrolled) as they might seem. The students mentioned several examples on how they ended up at the study program in which they’re participating now. Some used an agent, some simply Googled for any random Master program, some trusted on the University’s place at the world ranking list and others relied on the advice of family and friends.

I told that positive and fast communication played an important role in my decision to apply for a study place at Vytautas Magnus University. E-mail contact settled the matter for me when hesitating between a Master program in Tallinn and Kaunas. The communication process with the University in Estonia passed off laboriously. It took a long while before my questions were answered – if they were already answered at all – and in the end I was just completely ignored. Interestingly enough, since I stated I would be highly interested in applying for one of their Master programs. Vytautas Magnus University on the other hand replied fast and in a welcoming, friendly tone which was very appealing. As confirmed by Van Vught, corresponding correctly and accurately to prospective students is of utmost importance. 

 After a short break the coordinators joined a session on how to promote yourself (in this case the University) on the internet. The students were expected to design a marketing strategy for possible target groups attracting them to study in Lithuania. This group work was a nice way to get to know other students studying full time in Vilnius, Kaunas and Klaipeda. The group I joined consisted of students from Italy, Nigeria, Turkey, Greece, China and Norway. A colorful team with varying backgrounds. After a lot of brainstorming we got a clear overview on what kind of people could be considered as prospective students wanting to fulfill their Master or maybe even their complete Bachelor in Lithuania. We eventually had to pick two target groups, write down our ideas on a huge sheet of paper and present it in front of all other students and the coordinators which accompanied them. 

Together with Giorgio from Greece I was appointed to take this task on me. I first of all told from my own experience that most foreign students come to study in Lithuania because they want something else. They are different from the hordes of people going to France or Spain. They want something new, something exciting. Lithuania is special. Even though the country sometimes only seems to be made up of flat land, potatoes and storks, Lithuania has a lot more to offer. Its history is impressive and for me personally fascinating to look at from other than the Western on Germany focused history books. Lithuania’s cities are worth visiting, offering so much more than that to be found in tourist brochures. Lithuania is different. To come back to the topic of the presentation, I mentioned that post-Erasmus exchange students could be a valuable target group. They often seem to have the desire to go back to the place where they spend the best six months of their lives. A possible pitfall however could be that they have a too idealized image of how it will be to be a Master student in Lithuania. Erasmus students are well known for their party behavior while full time Masters need a bigger dose of seriousness and structure. However, thoughtful students would be able to extend their Lithuanian experience in a unique way. Giorgio stressed the importance of attracting students from Asia being interested in studying medicine or IT, wanting to get a European degree in an expenses favorable country in the European Union.  

This brings me to the presentation by a student from Jamaica. She mentioned we should stop calling Lithuania ‘cheap’ all the time. Lithuania is a respectful country with hard working people and a well working economy. It is an affordable country to live in. It was really beautiful how she stood up for this, shining a light on Lithuania in a honorable way. 

After a long but interesting day it was time for a well deserved diner. Still, the time to relax had not come yet. During a walk through Druskininkai with Fengyi, Egle and Zymante we discussed the presentations given earlier that day as well as the functioning of VMU’s International Office and Kaunas’ foreign students (and their pranks). It’s always good to realize one again how much work is done to satisfy the foreign students and to provide them with the best information and guidance as possible. Such a pity there are always people disrespectful to the rules, especially this academic year. Nevertheless, I’m sure I speak on behalf of the majority of international students when stating that we’re very pleased with all assistance provided by the International Office and their employees. The day ended with a warm bath with heaps of foam.

An early breakfast and a chilly morning-walk later it was time to start the second day of the seminar. Again another interactive presentation was waiting for us, this time given by a Lithuanian lector from Vilnius Gediminas Technical University, Eigirdas Zemaitis. In a Steve Jobs-kind of presenting style he introduced us to innovative and creative working tools. We were shown a lot of movies and applications in which smart technology can make our lives a lot easier. From automatically translated menu card apps till the tactical placement of virtual objects seen on the screen of one’s phone, mouths fell open of amazement. All young students suddenly felt very obsolete. During the workshop we tried to put our minds boosted with creativity into action on the question how to contribute to society through innovative and creative communication. Suddenly we all felt like being back in kindergarten again. Piles of Lego were divided on the groups’ tables. We had to create bridges, think about the stories behind them and furthermore we had to show through our Lego construction why exactly Lithuania is an attractive country to fulfill a study program. It might have looked a bit silly, youngsters in their twenties fanatically playing around, it was actually a good way to structure and come up with new ideas.  

A picture was made from our creative constructions accompanied by a poster depicting the main ideas of Lithuania’s attractiveness. Students thought quite differently about what makes Lithuania so special. Some guys mentioned beautiful girls and affordable tasty beer whereas others mentioned that Lithuania is a green country with a lot of space and historically fascinating cities. Concerning studies the low tuition fees were mentioned and furthermore the Lithuanians themselves we considered to be very helpful and welcoming. During the course of this two day seminar in Druskininkai I noticed a small contradiction in how most students think about Lithuanians. On the one hand they state that especially the University staff members play a big part in making the students feel comfortable in their new environment. They do their upper best to provide as much help as possible. On the other hand I heard several times that students face difficulties in connecting with their Lithuanian classmates. They’re not too eager to speak English – even though they chose an English Bachelor or Master degree – and they tend to be competitive, not easily wanting to share information which could be useful for fellow students as well. This is of course a generalized idea, however, it was remarkable to hear the exact same story from several foreign students.

After having presented the final outcome of our Lego creations to our coordinators and the other students it was time for some formal thank-you speeches and a group picture. In the corridor new friendships were confirmed by exchanging e-mail addresses, business cards and Facebook friendship requests. My compliments to the organization of this successful event! I’m convinced that every single student who attended is a perfect ambassador for Lithuania’s Higher Education. I’m very proud to be the Dutch representative and I’m looking forward to advise prospective Dutch (as well as all other nationalities’) students about the possibilities of a study career in the land of Vytautas, Lithuania.

 The pictures come from the Vilnius University for International Students (official) Facebook page.

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