How to deal with the IS, where to find an English-speaking doctor and help with finding a nursery school, car registration or visa issues. These are just a few examples of how incoming international students and employees are helped by Welcome Office staff. A five-member team, dedicated exclusively to services for newly-arrived foreigners, is led by Martin Vašek, who has worked at the MU Centre for International Cooperation (CZS MU) for more than a decade and so has an excellent understanding of everything that is needed.
International students are the largest group handled by the Welcome Office. Every year MU receives some eight hundred on exchange placements and about five hundred self-paying students enter the first year of bachelor’s or master’s programmes. The beginning of each semester is demanding, mostly due to Orientation Week, where in the course of an eight-day programme incoming students are introduced to everything important regarding life at MU, in Brno and in the Czech Republic.
A large number of students manages at MU mainly thanks to digitisation
“Orientation week starts already on Sunday, when students can buy kitchen utensils left by departing international students. This is followed in the afternoon with the Brno City Tour and then Movie Night. The most demanding part of Orientation Week begins on Monday morning, when hundreds of students flock to Scala so that we can welcome them and hand over official documents and an induction package. For the last seven years there have been so many students that they cannot all fit into Scala at the same time, meaning that we have to hold two rounds,” explains Martin Vašek, head of the Welcome Office.
Orientation Week, prepared in close cooperation with the ESN MUNI Brno student association, continues for another five days until the Saturday, with the students not only attending lectures and workshops on various topics and faculty tours, but also having a course in basic Czech as well as social activities. Aside from the Welcome Party, the ESN MUNI Brno association also organises an International Dinner with a wide variety of dishes from around the world, as well as a programme for the whole semester including Karaoke Nights, Guitar Jams, board games evening and country presentations.
Work with international students does not end with Orientation Week – Welcome Office staff are available to help them throughout the semester and students consult them regarding the registration of subjects, the issuing of confirmations of studies or when they have a problem. A lot of additional work results from the overall administration of exchange placement studies, from accepting nominations for student exchanges to issuing final documentation regarding courses and marks at MU.
“Colleagues from international universities are often amazed that we can cope with so many students with so few staff. For that we can thank digitisation of the entire agenda and in particular that we have the IS OIS, the mobility administration system we developed, facilitating our work and mass communication with students. It is especially thanks to this that we are able to admit hundreds of students,” explains Martin Vašek.
MU also provides an excellent service to international employees
International students are not the only group the Welcome Office takes care of. Aside from hundreds of international students it is responsible for almost 500 long-term international employees. Ninety percent of these are scientists working at some of MU’s ten faculties and its scientific and research institutes, most often from Germany, the USA, Poland, Italy, France and Austria.
“The Welcome Office provides an above standard service for these employees – arranging visas, help in finding accommodation or nursery schools in Brno, organising insurance and bank accounts and car registration. MU has long been a pioneer in this work and people also come from international universities to learn from us. Our reason for providing such services is actually very simple: we are trying to attract to MU the highest quality international employees and we want to show them that we will take care of them and smooth the way for their relocation. Thanks to this they are then more willing to join us,” explains Martin Vašek.
One of the scientists who has used the Welcome Office’s services is the Mexican Salomon Zacarias, who works at the Department of Theoretical Physics and Astrophysics of the MU Faculty of Science. “WO staff got in touch with me immediately after I gained a postdoctoral position at MU and they helped me with all the little details concerning my work and my visa application. They even helped me organise accommodation before my arrival, which made it a lot easier for me to move to an unknown place. In addition, they were always nice, quick to communicate and helpful, ensuring that my transfer to MU was a pleasant experience. I was surprised in a good way at the extent to which the university took care of newly arriving employees. This is not so common,” says Salomon Zacarias.
The Welcome Office also tries to ensure that international employees are well supported in Brno and at the university, and that they get to know each other, even if they work in different parts of the city. For this reason they organise various leisure activities for international staff, such as autumn pétanque beneath Špilberk or a Christmas party, where they can get to know people outside work and become acquainted with Czech Christmas traditions.
Aside from caring for long-term international employees the Welcome Office, together with the international offices of MU’s ten faculties, also looks after international staff coming for short-term exchange placements at MU. Each year the university welcomes several hundred such employees, including visiting teachers coming to lecture for a few days or weeks, as well as a variety of delegations from foreign universities or people interested in individual training in a wide range of areas.
In some areas MU also trains international staff on a larger scale – for some thirteen years the CZS has organised MUST Week (Masaryk University Staff Training Week), where every year in June international staff go to be trained in issues related to international offices, library services and services for students with special needs.
Every year some forty staff from around the world attend this training week, helping to maintain the international prestige of MU. It is a highly intensive and interesting week, during which workers from various countries share their experience, ideas and best practices. This weeklong programme also includes tours of Brno, faculties and the campus, including the newly created MU Faculty of Medicine’s Simulation Centre and the CEITEC science centre. At the programme’s end, participants are often very surprised the quality and progressiveness of Masaryk University, as well as how student-friendly the city is.
MU has won its second internationalisation award for its exceptional approach
Care for international students and employees does not end there. The Welcome Office and other staff from CZS MU’s seven departments are at their disposal practically 24/7 to deal with crises. At CZS there is a team of security coordinators, made up of eight volunteers who outside their working hours are constantly available for emergency e-mails, and even share an emergency phone, to which any foreign student or employee can call at any time, even in the night and at weekends. The line has already been helpful in various situations.
However, the emergency phone was at its busiest during the pandemic, and especially at its beginning, when in March 2020 the government announced a state of emergency and a ban on the movement of people and overnight closed the borders with surrounding states. At that time, due to the language barrier and chaotic information from the government, international students had no idea what was going on, and in a state of panic had to decide whether to remain in the Czech Republic or to return home. No-one knew how long the borders would remain closed.
It was at this time that the Welcome Office, in close cooperation with the International Marketing Division at the CZS, began to provide students with information about the new measures via social media in English, the website muni.cz and later also through newsletters for international students and employees. Thanks to these steps everyone was kept up to date on the new measures.
“At the start of the pandemic we didn’t even stop for weekends, and it was a very demanding period. Students didn’t know what was happening and the website muni.cz was practically the only Czech information website in English, which meant that during March it had more than 11 thousand visits. International students were extremely grateful for the information service and we provided them with information throughout the pandemic. Just to give some idea, in the course of one and a half years we published more than 114 posts on Instagram in English concerning new measures. They changed that often. Compared to other universities our approach to the crisis was unique, and we are very proud of our work,” says Jakub Motyčka, head of the International Marketing Division at the CZS, who was responsible for crisis communication.
This year, Masaryk University’s unique approach to international students during the pandemic was also recognised by the European Association for International Education (EAIE), which in September gave the university the highest European prize – the Award for Excellence in Internationalisation. Aside from help during the pandemic the Association also recognised the creation of the MU Volunteer Centre as well as its broad range of activities to aid Ukraine and described MU’s approach to both societal crises as this year’s most inspiring experiences.
MU gained the EAIE award for internationalisation for the second time – the first time being in 2012, when the EAIE introduced it. MU was thus the very first institution to receive the new award. That time the jury gave Masaryk University the award for the creation of a university-wide internationalisation strategy, which in many European universities did not even exist then, and for the coordination of more than 40 projects through the Erasmus Mundus programme, which was the third largest number in Europe.
“At the CZS we are in constant contact with international universities, so we can see how far MU is ahead in many things, whether it is innovative teaching, modern premises, cutting-edge research or digitisation, where we are far ahead even at the European level and for example in the digitisation of Erasmus we are among the best in Europe. Nobody else has been awarded the European award for internationalisation for a second time like us, and I think that Masaryk University truly deserves it for its unique approach to international students and employees,” is the view of Welcome Office head Martin Vašek.