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Lacking international experience is big disadvantage today, says new vice-rector

Since September, Masaryk University has had a new vice-rector for internationalization, Petr Suchý from the Faculty of Social Studies. He wants to strengthen student and employee mobility and provide better care for international students.

Vice-rector for Internationalisation Petr Suchý.

Petr Suchý has been working at the Faculty of Social Studies of Masaryk University (FSS MU) for more than 20 years, 13 of which he served as head of the Department of International Relations and European Studies and four as vice-dean for internationalization and student affairs. On 1 September, he joined the Masaryk University management team as vice-rector for internationalization. His expertise is on the role of nuclear weapons in international relations and US foreign policy.

At the beginning of September, you welcomed hundreds of new international students to Masaryk University, whereas 20 years ago, they would have all fit into one small classroom. How was it for you to see so many students arriving? And how do you perceive the change in this area?

Until now, I have always welcomed new students to our faculty, but now for the first time, I had the opportunity to welcome them on behalf of the whole University. And it was an amazing feeling to see how many people from all over the world have chosen one of our faculties as a place where they want to spend a semester or two.

It is incredible how far we have come in 20 years. Every year, we have around 1,000 exchange students and almost 1,600 international students studying in English-taught programmes, which is a good number. Their presence helps us not only to improve in various prestigious international rankings but also to be a university where internationalization is not just an empty concept. The positive impact is simply undeniable – not only could you hear a variety of languages in the faculty hallways over the years, but the university environment itself and the mindset of teachers and students has been greatly transformed. The presence of students and teachers from other countries and cultures gives us a unique opportunity – to socialize with people from different parts of the world, to gain inspiration, to share knowledge and experience, to enrich each other, and to make friendships for life.

However, it is not only Masaryk University that has changed, but also our city and its inhabitants. I remember Brno from the 1970s and 1980s, and the difference is really marked. Brno has become a lively, vibrant, and developing city, where it is pleasant to work and study. Brno is a hopping place now. We may have a slightly more difficult position compared to Prague, which is the capital and is better known in the world, but in my experience, I have seen many examples where international students have confirmed to me that they have found their place in Brno. They often state that at Masaryk University the attitude of teachers and other staff, the interest in them, even outside of educational activities, is better.

Masaryk University students travel to various regions of the world to study, to universities in Europe, Australia, the USA, and even the Philippines. How do you see the opportunities that students have today?

I am very happy about the variety of offers for almost all continents. There was nothing like this in our student days, and one could only envy it. But I wish it for them with all my heart. We aim to open up new pathways for students and establish partnerships with prestigious universities in Europe and overseas. And also to motivate them not to waste this unique opportunity and make the most of it.

Did you study abroad during your studies?

I studied in the 90s, and the options were very limited then. So, I signed up for a volunteer programme in Texas, which I accidentally found out about through a newspaper article. Eventually, I was selected and worked for a year as an assistant teacher in a kindergarten in San Antonio, caring for three- and four-year-olds. They're now 32 or 33 years old. I spent an unforgettable ten months with them and gained my first teaching experience, which is still useful to me in my university work. It was a great year-long adventure during which I made several new friendships, many of which continue to this day. I also improved my English and travelled across the United States by train, which I still fondly remember.

This programme also profoundly influenced me in that I began to study US foreign policy as a doctoral student. I spent a month at Freie Universität in Berlin for my PhD, and shortly after completing my PhD, I participated in a summer Fulbright programme at the University of South Carolina. It was an amazing four weeks of lectures and debates with colleagues from around the world, led by top professors and practitioners involved in US foreign policymaking. We spent another week in Washington, D.C., and wrapped up the programme in Santa Monica, California. The only pity was that it was three-quarters of a year after 9/11, so the planned visit to the White House and the CIA excursion did not take place. However, I still like to return to America to give lectures at partner departments or interesting conferences.

Why do you think students should study abroad?

For many reasons. The first is to develop the knowledge gained at MU at interesting universities abroad. Alternatively, to develop in areas that we do not focus on here. A placement abroad will also help them become independent and further improve their language skills.

They also place their home country in a wider context and often come to appreciate what they took for granted more. They will be inspired by things that are better out there and will try to promote them here and possibly give suggestions on what could be done differently. But they will also often find out what great opportunities for personal and knowledge development and treatment they have here. Not to mention that staying in a foreign country for an extended period is very beneficial for anyone; it helps gain perspective and has a great positive impact on society.

The last major benefit is employment. Not having international experience today is a big handicap when applying for attractive jobs. This has been confirmed to me by many of our graduates, with whom we have been in contact for a long time at the department, and by many companies and employers who place great emphasis on this.

You come from the faculty offering the most study programmes taught in English at MU. How has that transformed the FSS? And how do you view the English programmes offered at other faculties?

We started to open the first English programmes at our faculty at the beginning of the millennium. Today, we have almost 350 foreign students in 11 study programmes. It has been a boost for us in many ways, and not only from an economic point of view. The department from which I come has long been using part of the funds generated from English programmes to finance the teaching of renowned experts from abroad. This increases the prestige of the department and the attractiveness of study programmes. The opening of new programmes in the vast majority of departments has contributed to the further development and internationalization of the faculty.

The offer of English-taught programmes at Masaryk University is very diverse, even within individual faculties. I wish, however, that some faculties would pay more attention to these opportunities than they do now. I would welcome the further development of English programmes at the undergraduate level, for example, built interdisciplinarily, across faculties, as was the case at the FSS, where thanks to the cooperation of three departments, new programmes – Global Challenges: Society, Politics, Environment; and Politics, Media, and Communication –– were created. The forthcoming inter-faculty Liberal Arts and Sciences programme should be based on a similar approach.

In your opinion, what are the three greatest achievements of Masaryk University in the field of internationalization?

Undoubtedly, Masaryk University is perceived as an interesting and reliable partner by many prestigious educational institutions around the world. We saw this with the rector during his recent visit to Universität Regensburg, where he signed a strategic partnership agreement. This is also the case for the EDUC Alliance and may other institutions.

An absolutely outstanding achievement is winning the European Award for Excellence in Internationalisation for our approach to international students during the global pandemic and the war in Ukraine. This is the second time Masaryk University has received this award, and it is great that the activities of our staff and students have received European-wide recognition. And as a third great success, I would mention that the interest of students and staff in mobility is growing. I am really happy about that.

What are your biggest priorities for your next four-year term?

We want to continue to develop and strengthen student and staff mobility, both academic and non-academic. And motivate students to go abroad during their undergraduate studies. This is a great dream of the rector, which I strongly share. And that other placements abroad should follow during master's studies. In the case of doctoral students, this is now mostly a matter of course.

Important priorities will also be the continuation of establishing new and developing existing cooperation with other leading universities, efforts to develop the EDUC Alliance, and the continuation of preparations for the accreditation of the Liberal Arts and Sciences programme.

I would also like to support all meaningful efforts to make international students feel better and more comfortable in our country. The commitment of my colleagues across the University is also tremendous in this regard and gives me strong hope that the University will move forward as it has done so far.