Una Europa PhD Slam: Carolina’s story of overcoming adversity and putting yourself out there

Behind every PhD candidate is a story and Carolina Buendia Sarmiento is no different. While only being a PhD student for a few months in the Doctoral Programme in Political, Societal and Regional Change, she has already participated in Una Europa’s first PhD Slam, where she competed against seven other PhD students from across Una Europa universities researching topics related to sustainability. While her preparation was impeccable, the challenges of technology can be unpredictable. So how did it go? You’ll have to read on to find out!

Before we share Carolina’s roller-coaster experience with the PhD Slam, what sparked her interest in women’s empowerment, gender equality, development cooperation and understanding the complex dynamics and intersection of these topics?

While still back at home in Colombia she worked on implementation of a project on women, peace, and security issues. The project aimed to enhance women’s capabilities to participate in peace-building processes and enable them to support women facing gender-based violence. This project put Carolina on the path to Finland where she has lived since 2018. She came here for her master’s degree at Åbo Akademi in Peace, Mediation and Conflict. In Finland, she has also done consultancy work in different capacities on the topics of development cooperation and gender equality. But for Carolina applying for a PhD was always the goal and she was clear on her interests.

“After a lot of reading and research, I came across this interesting intersection of how development cooperation has been transforming itself. It is no longer only NGOs and governmental agencies that are involved in this process. Increasingly private sector is playing an important role. That sparked my interest, and I became certain that I wanted to do my PhD on this intersection of gender equality and women’s empowerment in particular, but trying to better understand the role of the private sector and what impact it has on women in the end.”

The University of Helsinki turned out to have the program that she believed was the best fit for her. She wanted to be in an environment where the research was focused on providing a critical perspective on the topic.

“I’m interested in the critical view on the dynamics that are shaping collaboration between the Global North and the Global South. I wanted to study in a place and collaborate with people who are interested in this critical perspective and not only going by the mainstream discourse that it’s positive that private sector put money into development cooperation but challenge that and be critical of what that means. That’s the reason I choose the University of Helsinki.”

While Carolina has only been a PhD student for a few months and the complexity of the pandemic has limited the opportunities for meeting and connecting with students and faculty, she is very happy with her decision and constantly gaining new perspectives and points of view.

“I recently took this course on gender and sexuality in regional studies. It was interesting how we were able to think together about how we analyse gender and how we can include it in our respective research. I was studying with people who are looking at gender in different contexts and that brings so much richness to the discussion. My understanding of gender is very much related to my work in development cooperation and the topics of gender equality, political participation, these societal phenomena, but gender is transversal, part of every single sphere of life and sector of society. Having the opportunity to discuss with people working on such different topics got me thinking; how can we apply the gender perspective in any research? It sparks ideas for how I can look at my own subject, my own interactions with gender in a different way.”

She realized that while the topics and fields of research are different, many of the questions her and her fellow students were asking were similar. What are the relations and dynamics that should be considered? In that manner she can learn from other’s experiences and ideas.

“It has been a very wonderful process; people are very open to discussing and willing to learn. You don’t see that too often and that is something, that is helpful when you are starting out. It gives you the confidence to speak with others about your research and ask questions. It is something I really value about the university and the people I have been connecting with.”

Finding opportunities and facing fears

Starting her PhD in the middle of a global pandemic has not been easy. Carolina was fortunate enough to have been recommended to sign up for a mailing list for PhD students and that’s where she heard about the Una Europa PhD Slam. A PhD Slam is where PhD candidates get 7 minutes to present their research. In Una Europa there are eight universities (since January 2022 there are nine partners), so eight PhD candidates would get the opportunity to present. Her first response was not applying since she’s very uncomfortable speaking in public. But she had been trying to challenge herself to take opportunities like this, even if it scares her. She had recently had a positive experience with ignite talks, where she had 5 minutes to present with the help of mostly visual slides changing every 15 seconds, so she thought that this could be the next step.

“This was the next level because it was an international audience, a larger scale and a more complicated issue because it would be on my research. But it was also more exciting because it was an opportunity to speak about something that I care about and connect with people interested in the broader discussion of sustainability. So, I decided that I wanted to apply. It took me a while to actually do the application, because I was quite nervous about it, but during the last day I finally submitted it.”

She felt good about applying and was excited when she got the news that she would be the PhD student representing the University of Helsinki. She did everything she could to prepare and practice and was excited and nervous when the day finally came. She was going to be the last one to present. Just when it was finally her turn, there was problems with the internet connection, which meant long minutes of stressful efforts to get the technology to work.

“During the presentation I had several difficulties, which really threw me off balance. It makes it difficult to get a grip of yourself and for one moment I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it, either because of the technical problems but also because I was much more nervous and affected than I would have been without the technical problems. I managed to do the presentation and after I finished, I just felt relieved that it was over, but also kind of sad and maybe a little disappointed that it didn’t go as I had pictured in my head.”

This kind of situation is probably a collective nightmare for all of us in these times of Zoom and online meetings. While this was not how Carolina had planned things to go, she still managed to turn the stressful experience into an opportunity for learning.

“After thinking about the process, I see that it was an opportunity for learning valuable lessons, about how to be able to let things go and not be so afraid of problems or difficulties and failing in general. I managed to give a presentation with all those problems. That was something that helped me afterwards, to think of it in a more positive light. The main thing is to accept that sometimes even if you think that you have thought of all the things that can go wrong, something unexpected can still happen and you need to be able to give your best in those situations.”

Being able to still move ahead in times of uncertainty and challenges is a valuable skill. Carolina managed to get everything together and deliver her presentation in a convincing manner and the jury noticed. After the voting, they announced the top three presenters and Carolina got the third place.

“I couldn’t believe it and for a moment I thought that I was hearing wrong. I started thinking, despite all the problems I must have given a good presentation and have be able to convince people to vote for me, so I was happy about the results, and felt like all that work had paid off.”

The value of Una Europa

To Carolina it is not rocket science how an alliance like Una Europa is valuable to PhD students. Being an alliance of now nine of the top research universities in Europe, it provides access to a large number of like-minded people, researchers, opportunities for collaboration, and resources.

“The Una Europa network gives each student the opportunity to be on a stage that can amplify their voice. Through this network you get connected to the networks of each university and the network of those students and researchers. It gives you more opportunities and more space to work collaboratively, to learn from others, but also to disseminate your research. I think it’s invaluable.”

Carolina believes that it’s a channel for more open collaboration and opens possibilities for doing projects in a more sustainable way by including different perspectives on the same problem. In her opinion that brings a lot of richness.

“I believe there are many positive outcomes of such initiatives, in terms of professional growth of PhD students but it also makes it easier to tap into common resources and provides a wider reach for the impact that you envision for your research.”

Especially in a pandemic Una Europa is tapping into that virtuality and aiming to create a meaningful space for PhD students to gather virtually and connect. In that way, Una Europa facilitates creating the network and space for meeting others, but also a sense of feeling supported. Carolina has already taken advantage of the Una Europa network and tapped into the potential of our virtual, European community. So, what’s next?

“What I’m hoping for is more opportunities to speak about my research but also to connect with people working with similar questions. I’m eager and looking forward to challenge myself. I’m just starting, but I already have a lot of ideas and I’m looking forward to seeing this process as a journey, as an opportunity to be critical and self-assess my preconceptions and previous understandings of the work and changing them.”

Apply for the Una Europa Local Task Force!

Are you:

  • Interested in the future of European higher education and student involvement?
  • Motivated when you can shape how a project is developed?
  • Looking to work with like-minded students in an international environment to make an impact?
  • Ready to use your voice to change hearts and minds at the University of Helsinki and in European higher education?

Then this is for you!

Una Europa is a European University Alliance, where the University of Helsinki together with eight other European Universities are striving to create a common European campus and build the European university of the future. Among other things this includes developing joint degrees, virtual and blended mobility, building a common student community and developing new formats of education and mobility.

Una Europa has five thematic areas: sustainability, European studies, Cultural heritage, One Health, and AI. If any of these themes or topics are of interest to you, there is a place for you in the Una Europa Local Task Force!

We are recruiting students for two teams to bring awareness about Una Europa among our students and make sure that all our students can benefit and participate in this alliance.

Communication team:

  • Develop, strategise and create content for the Una Europa Helsinki blog (where you are currently reading this)
  • Brainstorm and write stories for internal channels about Una Europa
  • Social media – work with the Student Union, the University of Helsinki social media team and others to create and share news about Una Europa opportunities
  • Support the monthly student newsletter
  • Work with the Una Europa Student Board – they are launching a publication for students across Una Europa and this team will be supporting that
  • Help create a long-term and sustainable communication strategy for Una Europa at the University of Helsinki

Community engagement team:

  • Connect with like-minded student associations and strengthen the networks for communication and common advocacy, events and other initiatives
  • Networking and coalition building between relevant stakeholders – help develop a strategic vision for how to embed Una Europa within the university
  • Plan and host events for students about topics within the scope of Una Europa, both online and in person, including monthly events at the Guidance Corner
  • Create campaigns and other initiatives together with the communication team
  • Work with the Student Board on Una Europa level to localize and co-create events including the student congress for all Una Europa students

The content and roles of the two teams and the team members will be co-developed with the selected applicants during February. The aim is for the two teams to work in close collaboration and define the tasks on an ongoing manner. This is an open and co-creative space. We want you to share your thoughts and ideas, and to think and dream big!

What’s in it for you?

  • You get to be part of a motivated team of fellow students passionate about education, learning and internationalization!
  • The opportunity to work in an international environment, both at the university and also within the wider Una Europa student community
  • Be part of creating something from scratch that has the attention of the university leadership and will make a difference both at our university and on European level
  • Access to financial and staff resources to make your ideas into reality

If this sounds like something for you, apply right here!

The deadline is Friday 28.1.2022 at 23.59.

Additional information:

  • The working language of these task forces will be English.
  • When applying for these positions we are expecting that you will be available throughout the spring semester (February-May/June), but this can be negotiated. There will be space to indicate your situation in the application form.
  • In terms of time commitment we would prefer that you are able to spend at least a few hours on this every week (2-5 hours) and also attend meetings every two weeks. This is a initial aim, but we are flexible and considerate of each student’s situation.

Selection will be done the first week of February and all applicants will be informed when selection has been finalised. We approach this with an open mind and therefore don’t have a strict number of positions. The number of selected participants depends on the number and motivation of applications.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact the project coordinator for Una Europa and student engagement Stinne Vognaes at Stinne.vognas@helsinki.fi.

Helsinki-Una Open Forum: Why do we need student engagement?

Student engagement is something we can all agree is great and important, at least in theory! But is it worth it when we need to put it into practice and how much should students be involved in? These are questions that we thought worth discussing and we will share some key insights from our last Helsinki-Una Open Forum right here.

At the Helsinki-Una Open Forums, we strive to bring up topics that connect our university with our broader network and involvement in the Una Europa alliance. 24th of November we had the fifth and last Open Forum of 2021 and we discussed the theme of student engagement.

We were lucky to have four great speakers and we got key insights as to why student engagement matters, how to do it well and what value it can contribute to our committees, international alliances, course development and building community in new programs.

If you want to watch the full talks, you can find them on UniTube.

Here we have gathered our main take-aways and reflections on how to strengthen involvement of students.

Teemu Turkki, student board member in Una Europa from the University of Helsinki.

Teemu has been a student board member in Una Europa since August and shared his experience working with fellow students in an international context, finding ways to include student voices and understanding the opportunities and challenges in a complex network such as Una Europa.

Teemu brought up many important points based on his experience in the student board:

  • The main goal of the student board (and other official bodies with students) is really to make sure the student voice is heard. That’s the essential and foundational role of these bodies. For students, it can feel difficult to really influence matters but they often have unique perspectives and suggestions that we can benefit from. The student board is crucial in facilitating that connection, and bridging bottom-up initiatives and ideas from students with the larger structures of networks such as Una Europa.
  • Student engagement happens on many different levels, from local to global and all of them matters when meaningfully engaging students. In Una Europa there is both the central Student board but also local task forces to engage local students and provide a flow of information both ways. While this is a great start, it is still challenging and an ongoing task to make sure that the centralised student board is transparent and shares the knowledge that is being gathered and discussed with all students to allow them to be informed and involved.
  • Finally, Teemu made a compelling argument for why student engagement is more important than ever. The world is increasingly complex, and we need the voices, ideas, and actions of many different people to solve the problems we are facing. It is not possible to solve problems alone. Decentralized decision-making and bottom-up engagement will be crucial to the success of Una Europa and in any kind of problem-solving in a global context, with challenges such as sustainability. For us to reach the ambitious goals of Una Europa and create the European university of the future, we truly need to engage students and make them our partners.
  1. Meri Mäkelä, university teacher and Rami Ratvio, university lecturer, and together coordinators of the SUST-001 course

Student engagement is not just about the students joining student associations and purely student driven initiatives. It is just as much about how we as staff are incorporating and including students in our work and giving them a seat at the table.

Meri and Rami understand very well the opportunities and benefits of being radically open, collaborative, and co-creating not just with students, but any member of the university community. They have been working on the university-wide sustainability course, SUST-001 that will be offered to all students. One of the main catalysts for this course was the university’s new strategic plan, where sustainability was positioned as a cross-cutting theme, to be present in all educational offerings. You can preview the course right here.

So, what have Meri and Rami learned from the ongoing process that has already lasted several years and included 160+ collaborators?

  • When planning a new initiative that will be university-wide and multidisciplinary it is beneficial to involve as stakeholders as possible. Meri and Rami are not only involving the students but also staff and other stakeholders within the university. In this kind of process, all perspectives and inputs can be valuable. It is hard to know where new insights might come from and the more people that are involved, the more insights and fresh thinking can happen. Especially initiatives related to complex topics such as sustainability benefits from a broad set of collaborators. If you want to be successful in creating a multidisciplinary course you need multidisciplinary approaches and points of view.
  • Students can take on many different roles and it is feasible to have them involved in all parts of the process. Students aren’t only included in the process of testing the course prototype, but they are involved in answering surveys, being test users, working on the content and pedagogical design, acting as facilitators in workshops and part of the steering group as equal members, in addition to being members of the working groups, and some are even working group leaders. Students were positioned as equals and encourage to contribute to the process at all stages with a full mandate together with staff.
  • Co-creative processes don’t have a clear start and end. When involving students and looking for feedback at all stages of the process, you need an iterative approach where feedback is integrated continuously. The course has been available in several iterations and changes have been made based on feedback from the students. If you want to engage students and do it well, you both need to make it clear how they can participate and show that you take the feedback seriously. There is nothing more discouraging that providing feedback and never seeing any changes being made. On the other hand, it is motivating to see your feedback put into practice.
  1. Alicia Lucendo Noriega, student in the master’s program Changing Education (CE)

Alicia is part of the first cohort in the first English-language program in the Faculty of Educational Sciences, Changing Education. They are not only the first English-language program, but they also had the challenge of creating a community in the middle of a global pandemic. In her presentation Alicia unpacked how to build a community from scratch and how proactive and creative students can be when provided the environment and encouragement to engage and co-create with staff.

So, what lessons can we learn from Alicia’s experience?

  • Co-create a community that feels safe and inclusive to everyone. It is an important part of culture building to allow students to commonly share and discuss what kind of community they want to be part of and what is important for them to feel able to express themselves freely with fellow students. In Changing Education this process started at the beginning of the program and continued through the first period. It allowed students to have a conversation about the kind of community they wanted to be part of. It both create ownership and a sense of responsibility towards the community. As Alicia said, it creates a strong foundation for learning. It is a reference point for everyone to refer to when needed and it is a continuous process to collectively bring it to life.
  • Connect with each other as human beings. Sometimes we get caught up in our roles and titles, who is student and who is staff. Alicia shared the initiative of Monday cafes where all students and staff could meet online. One hour each week, everyone could join this café to connect, talk, and share how it was going.
  • Collect feedback and act on it. Several feedback mechanisms have been put in place in the program, both regarding courses, but also to share experiences of the whole program and other aspects on students’ minds. Seeing the feedback being considered and put into practice, no matter how small, is encouraging and motivating. Ongoing conversations and dialogue are essential and in the Changing Education program students also organise a Student Panel each semester for the students to meet and openly discuss feedback and come up with concrete ideas together. Additionally, this is a great opportunity for community strengthening, since students come together and discuss how they together can improve the community. This kind of space allow students to get connected, act and feel a sense of agency for the collective they are part of.
  • Finally, Alicia emphasized how her program is an example of how much students are capable of when giving the opportunity. While the program staff did a lot and initiated the close cooperation with the students, the students also started several initiatives completely independently. They started a multimedia website where they share a podcast, blogs, their writings from courses including thoughts and ideas on how to change education. Additionally, they also created the first English-language student association Osa Ry in the faculty of educational science. They wanted to engage with the wider community and faculty, and they found ways to do this. By creating a platform to share their thoughts, work, and ideas they are striving to be part of changing education in practice. By organizing themselves in an association they are organizing events, connecting with the broader faculty and community. All this came from the wish to contribute to changing education. They are truly accepting the potential and invitation posed by their program, to change education.

We hope these insights inspired you as much as they inspired us, and we encouraged you to watch the full talks on UniTube! Student engagement is the future, students are essential partners within our collective university community and there are so many ways we can benefit from their insights and passion. We hope this has given you some ideas on how to strengthen the involvement of students in your own initiatives and projects.

Helsinki-Una Open Forum will return in January 2022 and we hope to see you for another year of thought-provoking talks and discussions!

Making international experiences accessible to all


The first student board of Una Europa in 2020

You might wonder why you should read about internationalisation in the time of COVID-19. This pandemic has, for the first time in our lifetime, shut down borders and quite literally grounded us. Does it really make sense to talk about international experiences without physical mobility? Topias Tolonen’s answer is ‘yes’. As this crisis has shown us, we need to rethink what internationalisation means and how we make it accessible to everyone, maybe even right here at home. 

Topias Tolonen is not new to the conversation about the value and challenges that comes with internationalisation. He is currently in the International Affairs Group at the University of Helsinki, which is where everything that has to do with internationalisation is debated. In addition, he is actively involved with the Student Union of the University of Helsinki, where he also deals with issues of international affairs among other things. In January 2020, he was selected to represent the University of Helsinki in the Una Europa Student Board and he just finished his term this August. Una Europa is an alliance with eight member universities, the University of Helsinki is one of them. The alliance has embarked on a journey towards a more integrated European Education Area and a common European campus. This means imagining the future of higher education through joint degrees, virtual mobility, living labs and much more.

But for Topias Tolonen the interest and passion for internationalisation started long before applying for the student board of Una Europa.

“I have been active in the Student Union for years, most recently I’ve started working as a specialist on the topics of higher education policy and internationalisation. I have been thinking about what it means for a university to be international and what that might look like in practice. The reason why I applied to join the student board of Una Europa is that I saw this alliance as an opportunity to learn. I wanted to see their approach to this question and get an example of a concrete manifestation of what an international university could look like.”

Reflecting on his time as a student representative in Una Europa, he argues that it was not just about understanding how this alliance might help or support internationalisation. In Topias’ opinion, it was also a way to get engaged and potentially impact the European landscape of higher education. Una Europa is an entry point to participate in and shape that conversation.

This is a big endeavour, and many challenges lie ahead but also plenty of opportunities. Topias was working with seven other students, each representing one of the other participating universities. Their role was to bring the student voice to this alliance, to make sure that what is being done in the different working groups has relevance to students and is addressing students’ wants and needs. Initiatives include joint bachelors, masters and doctoral programs, virtual mobility, newTopias Tolonen pedagogical approaches, challenge-based learning and much more.

The student board of Una Europa sends representatives to the steering and executive committee meetings. The goal is for the student voice to be present and to have a clear link between the high-level decision-making taking place in the steering groups and working groups and the students on each campus. Topias really sees it as quality assurance of the work that is happening to make sure that it is benefiting students and other stakeholders. The money for the project is coming from Erasmus, so students should definitely have a clear voice in Topias’ opinion.

“It is challenging when you are part of a newly started project. How to put the structures in place that keep students involved and informed continuously and make sure that we as the student board were kept informed about new information and knowledge being circulated.”

Topias Tolonen is very clear on the value of international experiences and would like more students to benefit from it. He sees Una Europa as a possibility to remove the obstacles and challenges that students might be facing when considering an international experience.

“Based on the Eurostudent VIII study, one of the key points that keeps Finnish students from applying to go abroad is financial matters. The cost can be high and they lose the income from their job while abroad. There are also many practical questions and just many unknown factors that make people think twice. Una Europa is piloting virtual mobility, which is very interesting, but I’m also curious to see the potential and implementation of blended mobility.”

Topias really wants to expand and rethink the idea of mobility. He wants it to be accessible to a broader range of students and work to break down as many barriers as possible. He argues that there are many initiatives that could make the process of going abroad easier, such as centralising information and making the application process clear and simple.

“I still believe that the threshold to applying to go abroad is too high. That is an issue. But again, if everything goes according to the plan, an alliance like Una Europa will support us in breaking down these barriers and making the technical and administrative side of things much simpler. I think that is very valuable and something that all students should really be excited about!”

Topias Tolonen has finished his term as a Student Board member, he is now focusing his energy working at the Student Union of University of Helsinki (HYY) as a specialist in higher education policy. This conversation took place in the fall of 2020. 

Since September this year, Teemu Turkki is the new student board member for Una Europa.

“Let’s do this big”: Sustainability transition by co-created learning objectives

One of the most powerful features of Una Europa, to me, is the combination of value-based shared goals and boldness to reach for new solutions. Commitment to sustainability is one of the fundamental values that the University of Helsinki and Una Europa share.

For the University of Helsinki, embedding aspects of the UN sustainable development goals in all our educational offerings​ is one of our strategic goals for this decade. A tangible measure toward this goal is our brand new sustainability course launched this spring and piloted as we speak.

Una Europa, with sustainability as one of its five focus areas, is determined to address the sustainable development goals via dialogue between natural sciences, social sciences, health sciences, engineering, arts and humanities from all eight partner universities. The goal is to co-create innovative formats for education that enable a new holistic approach to sustainability teaching. All academics within the University of Helsinki are welcome to influence their shape and direction.

In concrete, the Una Europa community is working on both a joint bachelor’s degree and a master’s level micro-qualification in sustainability science. The bachelor’s programme in sustainability is a unique initiative as a step toward truly joint degrees: co-created by sustainability researchers from all universities, earning the students a degree recognised by all degree awarding universities. The micro-qualification in sustainability represents a new European opening designed to answer the needs of master’s students, individuals switching fields and life-long learners alike with a 20 ECTS module of four MOOCs.

What can these new approaches to sustainability teaching mean for us at University of Helsinki in practice? To find out, the second UH-Una Open Forum on 31 March set out to discuss our university community’s expectations for Una Europa collaboration. An active group of researchers, teachers, students and specialists sparked discussion circulating around expectations, benefits and needs for Una sustainability cooperation.

The following are my takeaways from the discussion – ideas I intend to keep at heart as we continue paving the way towards our shared goals.

High expectations 

Quality and collaboration were two keywords characterising the participants’ expectations for Una Europa collaboration. The level of ambition and excitement was epitomised in the output of one of the group discussions: “Let’s do this BIG – gather students & researchers & professionals all over Europe to join forces for the sustainability transition!”

Quality expectations were connected to the content and pedagogy of sustainability education but also to the process of creating the joint bachelor’s degree and the micro-qualification. Personally, I am inclined to see precisely the collaborative working method as a solution for increased quality in content. Genuinely co-created contents and methods for education will build on expertise and best practices from all eight universities. However, such a goal can pose needs for a kind of creation process we may not be used to.

Co-created goals to guide collaboration 

In the Open Forum discussion on the needs for successful collaboration, one need named was getting to know each other to create mutual understanding and ultimately shared goals. This is indeed a crucial starting point. It is also something that requires dialogue and proper time and patience given to the process.

Because we also want to advance at pace, the process needs guidance. Intercultural collaborative processes like this can get fuzzy as we come together from our different viewpoints to build something completely new. We easily get lost in mapping out our existing course offerings and figuring out how to best combine them into a new whole, or which practical obstacles to consider as permanent and justified limitations and which ones to work around.

A solution simplifying such decisions is putting our learning objectives to use as the guiding light for our co-creation process. For the micro-qualification, the learning objectives have been defined this spring and the process is well on its way for the Joint Bachelor as well.

Reminding ourselves of these objectives from time to time can solve many problems for us. When in doubt, ask which solution brings us closer to the objective of, say, students critically reflecting the sustainable development goals in different cultural contexts. This can tilt the balance for executing a given course as a joint online course to enable dialogue and participation from all universities.

Keeping learning objectives in mind as our core goals is both a way of keeping focused and building the joint degree and micro-qualification into something more than a reassembling of the courses we already offer – into more than just the sum of the parts, as called for in our Open Forum.

Keeping all on board 

Another insight form the Open Forum was the need for coordination. Fostering participation opportunities and bottom-up development of our sustainability education should be balanced with providing a clear framework supporting the stakeholders involved – students, teachers, administrative specialists, employers and others.

Regular follow up events and updates to keep everyone involved were concrete wishes we should live up to. Here are some of the ways already in use to distribute information and engage interested UH community members.

Updates and viewpoints on Una Europa collaboration are published regularly in this blog. The third UH-Una Open Forum on 19 May will discuss Una Europa seed funding with the aim of supporting the initiation of long-term collaborative activities between the partner universities.

The design of the micro-qualification was created in the leadership of prof. Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen, advancing novel MOOC co-teaching within Una Europa. From May 2021 on the implementation of the MOOCs will be led by Laura Riuttanen.

Hands-on work shaping the Joint Bachelor in sustainability is about to get a boost from a new preparatory group with the task of coordinating teaching for the Una Europa joint bachelor’s degrees in sustainability and European studies. A call for members to the group will be open during the first two weeks of May – stay tuned for more information!

Jenna Sorjonen, planning officer for Una Europa’s 1Europe project

Tips for teaching an international online classroom

It has now been almost a year since international travel became fraught with new hazards as the new coronavirus made its way around the globe. With the spread of the pandemic, most physical mobility of students and staff came to a halt.

We had just come back from Brussels, attending the kick-off conference for Una Europa’s 1Europe pilot project, when the pandemic hit. It soon became evident that 1Europe’s aim to extend the benefits of physical mobility to 50 % of our students, ambitious to begin with, had become all but impossible.

Yet, we also realised that for virtual mobility the pandemic gave unexpected new momentum.

Even a year ago I, for one, had only a vague idea of what virtual mobility might entail. For Una Europa, however, it was always envisioned as  a vital element for buiding a joint European campus and enabling intercultural experiences for all students regardless of their social background and financial situation.

At the onset of the global pandemic, mobility experts from the different Una Europa universities came together. They devised a way to cut through the red tape and came up with “Virtual Mobility in Emergency” – a scheme to allow courses from different universities to be opened to students accross Una Europa. The first edition of the scheme ran in the fall, and the second is about to start.

From teachers the transfer of courses online has required new skills, both technological and pedagogical. For students, attending courses from distance can be exhausting.  Add to both an international element – students from different cultural and academic backgrounds attending the class from various geographical locations and  timezones – and the challenges may well multiply.

Despite the challenges, the situation does also open new opportunities.  To gain from each others’ experiences, the first UH-Una Open Forum discussed ideas, tips and good practices for teaching an international online classroom.

Here are some of the takeaways of the opening presentations and the discussion that followed.

1. Aim for learning by developing things together

In the upheaval of last spring, trying to figure out Zoom settings and video standards, you might not have appreaciated the advice too much, if somebody would have told you to consider your metaphors. Yet, this is what Minna Lakkala, university researcher in the Technology in Education Group, would have us do.

Minna’s advice is based on an insight by Sami Paavola and Kai Hakkarainen that there are three kinds of metaphors that guide our understanding of learning and expertise. The metaphor where learning is seen as knowledge creation is best suited to elicit and understand processes of knowledge advancement that are important in a fast evolving, heavily co-dependent and knowledge-intensive environment.

In addition to individual cognition and social interaction, the metaphor of learning as knowledge creation emphasises co-development of shared objects and practices – in other words, collaboration. For online teaching in particular, Minna and her colleagues have devised Stairs of Collaboration. While online teaching may increase isolation, the stairs of collaboration demonstrate, step by step, how tools that are endemic to the online environment can be used to actively mediate the process of knowledge-creation, including its social aspects.

Stairs of collaboration in online teaching and learning by Lakkala et al 2009

In the current environment, new tools for collaboration are mushrooming and Minna too has been involved in their development. Nice hints for using tools that are readily available at the UH have been collected here. Regardless of the tools, sharing outcomes, results and discussions between course participants can be used to create a sense of community even without synchronous meetings.

2. Take advantage of the students’ different backgrounds and geographical locations

Even in a monocultural setting (if such a thing even exists), writing a joint report or coming up with a solution to a specific problem develop our skills for communication and interaction. In an international classroom, these skills  extend to understanding of different cultural perspectives, open-mindedness and courage to interact with people from other countries.

Friederike Lüpke, professor of African studies and researcher of multilingualism, has been teaching a joint course with colleagues from Brasil. After some initial confusion – think of vastly differing time zones and various practices in terms of daylight savings time! – the course turned out to be a positive learning experience for all involved.

I learned in class that Brazil celebrates Black Consciousness Day today. A great side effect of having a course on African multilingualisms that brings together students from @helsinkiuni with students and professors from Brazilian universities. Advantages of covid-era teaching!

By opening up our courses we can create possibilities and support equal oppotunities for students abroad and work “for the world” according as we promise.

In addition, differences of cultural background and geographical context can be actively used to promote not only intercultural skills but a more nuanced understanding of the suject matter. Instead of grouping Finns and “foreigners” separately for convenience, mixing students from different backgrounds together opens the path to new discoveries.

For a subject such as multilingualism, the benefits of bringing students together from different linguistic backgrounds is perhaps obvious. Yet, encouraging the active use different backgrounds as contextual information is possible whether we are talking about public health or climate change. To do this, ask for concrete examples to combine abstract issues to everyday practice.

In exact sciences, cultural differences might manifest as different pedagogical norms and ways of learning and a discussion on these might benefit the whole group.

3. Create a safe space and manage expectations

Incorporating cultural differences to teaching, whether online or face-to-face, requires a psychologically safe space.

To create such a space, Henna Pursiainen, educational visionary and UH master’s student, stresses the importance of setting out norms and rules. But instead of imposing a ready-made etiquette, it is worth while to try and discuss cultural differences openly and set the ground rules in collaboration with the students. Introductions with pictures from one’s home town, for example, could be a nice way to increase familiarity.

Example of an introductory assignment for an online course

Based on her experience with an international interactive learning festival, Henna encourages teachers to embrace the unfinished nature of on-line sessions and allow for discussion, feedback and thinking out loud. To ensure that everyone feels encouraged to speak, there should also be room for “imperfection”. And as Friederike would like us remember, this applies to “imperfect” language and mix of different languages.

To tackle other pitfalls of learning online in a multilocational context, managing expectations is key. Take into account the different time zones (remember daylight savings!) and pedagogical standards, start with warm-ups and use quick and easy questions to get everyone on board. To make sure that tasks and assignments are understood and submitted on a timely basis, use various methods of verbal and visual coding (mindmaps, drawings, memes, drawings).

Maija Urponen, Una Europa operational lead at UH


Una Europa at the University of Helsinki

One of the finest moments of my university career is listening to the speech of Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Great Hall of the University of Helsinki in March 2015.

The audience was mainly students of the University of Helsinki who also had the opportunity to ask questions to perhaps the most influential woman in the world. One of the students asked Merkel what advice she would give to young people who are about to graduate. The question surprised Merkel and I would say that she was even a bit moved as she pondered the answer. The answer was so big.

In her response, Chancellor Merkel talked about her background in the Cold War in East Germany, where the student’s international free movement was out of the question. She urged students at the University of Helsinki to take note of the opportunities offered by the current internationalisation of universities. “Go see the world and get to know different ways of living and thinking,” was the message she conveyed. Us older members of the audience were very much in agreement. During our studies, there were hardly any exchange opportunities, and as we age and get settled somewhere and with someone, going abroad gets more difficult.

The French president Emmanuel Macron conveyed a similar spirit for internationalization in his speech in September 2017, when he put forward a motion towards European Universities. Speking at the Sorbonne University in Paris, Macron pictured the new European Universities as acts of conquest for future generations and the glue that will hold Europe together amongst its national differences. By joining forces from accross the continent, they would, visioned Macron, be drivers of educational innovation and the quest for excellence.

In such a quest for excellence, and to promote such internationalisation and mobility of its students, the University of Helsinki joined Una Europa in October 2019.

Una Europa is one of the by now 41 European University alliances funded under the European Universities Initiative by the Erasmus+ programme. In the spirit of both Merkel and Macron, the European Universities Initiative is designed to significantly strengthen mobility of students and staff, and foster the quality, inclusiveness and competitiveness of European higher education.

For the University of Helsinki, being part of Una Europa means that we are building an entirely new kind of strategic partnership with our seven partners from all four corners of Europe, from Bologna to Edinburgh and Krakow to Madrid.

Mobility and its enhancement are key to Una Europa partners and our common future. Once the pandemic allows us to travel again, physical encounters between students and staff from different universities are crucial for the Una Europa community. Yet, we are also strongly investing in virtual learning environments and means of communication to build opportunities for accessible and environmentally sustainable virtual mobility between our universities.

Indeed, Sustainability is one of the academic focus areas that Una Europa has initiated its collaboration. The other four focus areas are Data Science & AI, Cultural Heritage,  European Studies, and One Health. Together, the focus areas and their cross-fertilization will boost the solving of the grand challenges of our time.

This blog is here to help us imagine together, what Una Europa means to us at the University of Helsinki. What are the opportunities that it offers? What can we, together, achieve by belonging to this new type of alliance?

Una Europa offers us a chance to be bold, to build a new kind of a university and a new kind of a university ecosystem. What does the university of the future look like and how can we at the University of Helsinki be part of shaping it?

Hanna Snellman, Vice-Rector for International Affairs