Violeta, originally from Bulgaria, has been living in the Czech Republic since she was 23. She moved to the Czech Republic to be with her husband, whom she met in the mountains of Bulgaria. Since then, the Czech Republic has become her new home, and she can hardly imagine living elsewhere.
She has worked at the CZS for more than 20 years. For the last eight, she headed the Strategy and International Marketing Division and was in charge of EDUC Alliance activities at MU. In the past she was also the main coordinator of the Erasmus Mundus programme, focused on non-European countries. She is now in charge of the entire CZS, whose mission is to make Masaryk University a more international institution.
You’ve been working at the CZS practically from when it first opened. Since then, more than 19,000 students have gone abroad, and more than 12,000 students have come to Brno to study. How do you reflect on these numbers?
It's almost unbelievable. We have a right to be proud of ourselves because we have made a giant leap forward in 20 years. I still remember when the first international students came to MU. We knew them all by their first names, and we were like family. Today, all of them wouldn’t fit into University Cinema Scala, so we have to split them into two groups to welcome them all. It’s hard to believe how everything changed within a few years.
And not just in terms of international students but also in terms of our students that we send to study throughout the world. It is unreal the number of places that they can go thanks to MU. I like to say that at the CZS we try to make the world a smaller place for students because not many universities can offer their students the chance to study at hundreds of universities in Europe, as well as at universities in Canada, the USA, and New Zealand and even in exotic destinations such the Philippines, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Cuba. Students can go anywhere they want, and it’s all within easy reach. All they have to do is apply, board a plane, and leave. The main thing is to want to do it.
You have been working in international education for years. How many universities have you visited, and which ones have stuck in your head?
I’ve probably visited more universities outside of Europe than inside it because for many years I was responsible for Erasmus Mundus, a programme for non-European exchanges, where we coordinated 42 projects. That was the third largest number in Europe, thanks to which we were very visible abroad. I really enjoyed working on such projects because our main goal was to cooperate with developing countries and help them improve, which was meaningful work. But it was very difficult. We were constantly working because we were so passionate about all the projects. I wouldn’t even call it work; it was a lifestyle. It was impossible to shut the computer off at night and stop working when the day was just starting in Chile.
But all the effort was worth it because those international students were truly grateful to get the chance to study in Europe. For many of them it changed their lives. I’m still in touch with many of them today, and it is my pleasure to see where they have worked themselves up to thanks to studying abroad. Especially when I saw with my own eyes the environments they came from and at what kind of universities they studied.
Some of the universities I visited were like from another world. For example, at one university in the Philippines I felt like I had gone back 100 years in the past. They didn’t even have hot water on campus, and they collected rainwater in barrels and then drank it without treating it at all. But still it was spectacular to see how open and wonderful the people there were and how they lived all together. I always enjoy returning there. I also really like one university in Bhutan, which is built in the traditional royal style, and the employees there must wear traditional costumes. There I felt not only like I was 300 years in a past, but also like I was in a fairy tale. A special experience for me was visiting a university in Gambia, where they have a totally different culture and work pace. What fascinated me the most was that inside this university lying in the desert it was very pleasant, despite it being 50 degrees out. I could go on and on.
What do you think are MU’s greatest accomplishments in internationalization?
That we are known around the world and that when you say Masaryk University, people all over the world know what you are talking about. For that we can thank not only our many international graduates—both exchange students and those paying tuition—but also other activities and projects on which we cooperate with universities throughout the world.
When we look at the problems around us, we can get the feeling that we aren’t as good and that we are lacking something, but the more time I spend among international partners, the more I see that in many areas we are ten years ahead of others. But not just in building infrastructure and digitalization, but also in internationalization. In 2012, we received the European Association for International Education’s first ever Institutional Award for our innovative approach to internationalization.
A great achievement in the European context is certainly our membership in the EDUC Alliance, which is part of a network of European universities financed by the European Union. And I can’t forget about our annual MUST Week during which we offer training to international employees that is top-notch in the European context. Even University in Porto does not run that many cycles as we do. We also excel in digitalizing Erasmus; in this regard, we are leaders not only in the Czech Republic but in Europe. We believe that thanks to digitalizing Erasmus going abroad will become a natural part of studying at MU and that every student will go abroad at least once.
And then there are the smaller accomplishments that bring us great joy. For example, during the pandemic I was pleasantly surprised by the great interest in virtual summer schools. We also managed to launch a new scholarship programme for international students starting their first semester at MU, who receive what we call newcomers’ scholarships, which are extremely popular. We also began cooperating with international ambassadors, from which we expect a lot.
What internationalization challenges await Masaryk University in coming years?
We mainly want to develop cooperation with universities ranked in the top 300 globally. We want to send more of our students and academic staff there. Another major issue for us will be virtual mobility for students and blended mobility, combining virtual and in-person classes, which will be able to be funded by the new Erasmus+ programme. And of course we will continue digitalizing the Erasmus programme. This is a long process lasting many years. In terms of other exchange programmes, we face a great challenge—reduced funding from the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports, which we use to support all our programmes besides Erasmus. That’s going to be a hard nut to crack.
Another great challenge will be opening new foreign-language programmes. Right now, for instance, we are preparing the bachelor’s programme Liberal Arts and Sciences, which will be taught at several MU faculties. I believe that soon we will add new bachelor’s programmes. Attendees of international education fairs are very interested in them. Perhaps we will soon have our first Erasmus Mundus Master Degree programme, which is a prestigious European Union grant scheme for opening master’s programmes taught in collaboration with foreign universities. After completing such programmes, graduates receive two or more diplomas. Opening such a programme would certainly make us more attractive to international applicants.
MU can also very likely look forward to the second phase of EDUC, which is already opening up new possibilities and has moved us a bit further. In the new programming period, we can look forward to many changes and new topics. For example, hot topics at European universities right now are the “European degree” and microcredentials, about which I am sure we are going to be hearing more.
And the last thing, which I personally am really looking forward to, is developing cooperation with Czechs living abroad and graduates from other countries, for whom we have already held a major alumni meeting in Brno during the MUNI100 celebrations. In early September we are planning another alumni meeting in Brno.
You spoke about international students for whom studying in the Czech Republic changed their lives. You too are a foreigner. How is life for you in the Czech Republic? And how would you characterize Czechs?
I really like the Czech Republic, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else in the world. It is my second home, even though the culture here is a little bit different and the people have a different nature and humour. Czechs are more reserved than Bulgarians, but once you get to know them better, you find out they are not so reserved. But you have to get used to the fact that everyone is always complaining about everything––even though they often don’t have a good reason to do so.
At the same time, the Czech Republic is a wonderful place to live. I, for example, appreciate most that you can rely on everything here, like on public transport, which runs on time, or on the great health and education systems. Both are free for everyone, something that amazes foreigners. Everything is orderly, and everything works the way it should. And we should appreciate that. In many parts of the world, this is not a given.