Universiteit Leiden

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‘Science is international so our faculty should be too’

‘Our faculty is a very international community. And that is something everybody really benefit from,’ says Yun Tian. As the officer internationalisation, she is the bridge between international students and staff, the faculty and universities abroad. ‘Science goes beyond countries and carries no nationality. Scientific research is done in an international setting and aims for the world to become a better place overall.’

‘A large amount of our staff and part of our students are internationals. Only by working together with great researchers from all over the world, our research will stay world class,’ Tian says. ‘We rely on international talents to bring good ideas and important scientific output. In the meantime, Dutch students benefit from international collaborations, exchanges and a diverse environment to learn from.’

To make sure these international collaborations go well, every faculty has officers of internationalisation. Tian facilitates networking and international research collaborations for the Faculty of Science. ‘I’m a bridge between the internationals, the faculty and the university. I help the scientists to grow their connections and to structuralized projects which can attract more resources. Next to that, I also work on an ‘eco-system’ where internationals feel good, valued and accepted at our faculty.’

Bottom-up influence on the cabinet

A good university policy is therefore essential. ‘We have a university-wide policy group where every faculty is represented by its internationalization policy officers.’ At the moment, internationalisation in higher education is also a hot topic on national level. The university policy group also gives input and feedback on the related policies from the Dutch cabinet. ‘We can show them what internationalisations means to our university and what it brings us. This way, we work together on a better National policy.’

So how can we connect with universities around the world? ‘I facilitate collaborations by organising international meetings and visits. ‘Last week, there was a delegation from the Indonesian Universitas Gadjah Mada for example. We are working together on a joint research and expertise centre which will benefit multiple disciplines, from biology, drug research to computer science.’ But also delegations from Leiden Science visit other universities. ‘During these trips, there are meetings about strategical collaborations, but also public lectures and seminars for scientists to get connected and understand each others workfield.’

Traveling as part of the job

Tian makes the programme for these visits and joins the delegation on their travels. ‘I went to China and Indonesia many times. Although I like these visits a lot, I’m not a big fan of sitting on a plane and creating a big carbon footprint. That’s why I always make sure we can make the most out of it. I plan a quite intense program and let the whole delegation work very hard in each trip. Luckily they never complain,’ she says while laughing. ‘After the meetings in the day, we always have a good time and get to know each other better. I really like to work with scientists. To be able to help and to create extra values for them, are my true incentive. That's the part I like a lot.’

A different educational culture

Different kind of collaborations develop out of the international activities. ‘Staff and students exchanges, joint research programmes and joint PhD programs. In these, extra funding can be located and PhD students can work under the co-supervision of supervisors from different institutions. This way they can get the best of both places. And the joint supervision is often the best way to extend and deepen collaborations among scientists.’

Souvenirs of international visits.

Being a researcher in a foreign country also comes with some challenges. ‘The educational system can be very different in their home country. If I compare with China for example, teaching is more systematic whereas in the Netherlands you have to be more independent as a student. I would say more self-oriented and maybe creative. I think people can learn from both educational ways.’

‘I am their confidant’

Tian is also there to support the international researches. As she moved from China to the UK for her master’s degree, she knows how it is to get used to a new culture. ‘Different cultures often means different way of communication. If there are miscommunications with the supervisor for example, I can be the bridge between student and supervisor as I understand both cultures and their way of communication. But I have to say that I see the so called cultures shocks getting less noticeablein the past years. Being open and international for many years seems to have helped people to understand each other and to have the new generation adapt to the international environment.’

New researchers sometimes come to Tian for advice. ‘They always trust me with their problems and questions.’ Over the time, she often builds a good connection with them. ‘I have been invited to someone’s baby shower and even a wedding. Unfortunately I also had to attend a funeral of a PhD student that died in a housefire. We had his parents over and I helped where I could. That was very sad.’ But when a student successfully completes a program, Tian is at her happiest. ‘I often help the student from the beginning, for example by finding the right supervisor. Then I help to have all the practicalities arranged such as funding and I’m available for them until the end of the program. When you see good results of the program you developed and established, that’s truly fulfilling.’

Tian’s children speak four languages

Next to her job, the situation at home is also very international. ‘My husband grew up in Switzerland but his mother is Spanish and his dad was from Italy. And together we lived in UK and Spain before. So when we watch a football game, it’s very hard to choose which team to support,’ Tian jokes. ‘Our kids grow up very international as well. I speak Chinese to them, my husband Italian, at home we speak English and they go to school in Dutch.’ Despite the international job and home situation, Tian’s love for the Netherlands is very big. ‘We surely want to stay long-term. That’s also because I really like to work here at the faculty with the international community. I think this is my favourite job!’

Text and pictures: Inge van Dijck 

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