Tuesday 15 December 2020
Elena Tsigki works in the Strategy and Policy department and is responsible for the international projects CuriousU Summer School and the Autumn Challenge. In these projects, students from all over the world work together in real-life challenges. On-campus and online. Elena talks to Janneke de Sousa, programme manager of the Career Development Center. About how a young student from Cyprus ended up in Twente, the importance of diversity and what we can learn from each other. As people and as an organisation.
Janneke de Sousa: 'Hi Elena, I know your face. Do you work in the Spiegel too?'
Elena Tsigki: ‘Yes, I do. But you recently gave an online presentation in the Strategy & Policy department, which is where I saw you!'
Janneke: 'Oh yes! So, tell me: who is Elena?'
Elena: 'I was born in Cyprus and studied modern Greek literature there. I was also part of a theatre group. The University of Amsterdam invited us to come and perform. I then found out that I could also do a Master of Literature at the University of Amsterdam. I thought that would be a good move. Eventually, I also did a literature review in Amsterdam and I ended up here in Twente via the University of Groningen. I planned to stay for two years, but I've now been in the Netherlands for ten years.'
Janneke: 'Life's funny like that! There's no master plan. You've lived and worked in lots of different places. So, what I wonder is: when do you feel at home?'
Elena: 'While I was studying in Amsterdam, I lived in The Hague. The Hague didn't really suit me. After my studies, I moved to Groningen. I loved it there: the energy of a student town. Which is what I like about Enschede too. Although it's been several years since I was a student, I feel at home in places with a young vibe. The UT has that too, we are a young university.'
Janneke: 'Do we get that vibe in the CuriousU Summerschool?'
Elena: 'Yes, I think so. In 2019, we organised the first CuriousU Summerschool. It was an amazing ten-day festival with students from fifty different countries. They went to lectures from the UT's programme lines, did workshops and assignments. And in the evening, the festival continued: eating together, watching a film, dancing, going out. It was fantastic to be a part of all that. And it's a great way for foreign students to experience the UT. It's a swinging and atmospheric introduction to what the UT has to offer.'
Janneke: 'And then 2020 came along...?'
Elena: 'Yes, unfortunately CuriousU couldn't go ahead this year. Due to COVID-19, it was impossible to organise an international festival. So, we looked for an alternative. And that was the Autumn Challenge - with elements of CuriousU in a different form.'
Janneke: ‘I'm curious! Tell me more!'
Elena: 'I wanted to do something for students. A short, online and challenging programme to make them feel less isolated. So, together with colleagues from the UT, our partners in the ECIU, Enschede municipality and other external stakeholders, I compiled seven real-life challenges: challenges for which students had to think up a solution. Around forty international students are involved.'
Janneke: 'Can you tell me a bit more about the programme?'
Elena: 'The Autumn Challenge lasts twelve weeks. In that relatively short space of time, we ask quite a lot of students. What's more, they all come from different backgrounds. That means you can't just give students a challenge and say: 'there you are, have fun'.
So, they have workshops about design thinking, intercultural collaboration and stakeholder management. And we organise themed weekend programmes. About technology and ethics, for example. And then there are cultural activities so that they can get to know each other better, with online versions of a cooking workshop, a pub quiz and even a campfire where we share stories.'
Janneke: 'That sounds good. So, just like with CuriousU, you look for a combination of content and personal contact?'
Elena: 'That's right. I know how it feels to be a 'foreign' student. Personal contact is vital to help you feel at home quickly. In CuriousU and now in the Autumn Challenge, we, therefore, focus a lot on that. We want to build an international community. Not just with respect to these two projects but to the UT.'
Janneke: 'What do you think UT can learn from these projects?'
Elena: 'Good question. I see that the collaboration between people from different cultural and intellectual backgrounds produces lots of new perspectives and new solutions. For that reason, I feel it is important that UT seeks out that diversity wherever possible.
When it comes to challenge-based learning, people can move mountains if they have a common goal and gain confidence. I have already seen several presentations and it's incredible what students in the Autumn Challenge manage to achieve!'
Janneke: 'That confidence, that's exactly what I try to encourage in my own work. If you create the right circumstances and bring together the right people, something good always happens. And we don't necessarily need to know what that will be in advance. We need to allow ourselves to be surprised more often, don't you think?'
Elena: 'I'm glad you said that. I agree. We put too much pressure on ourselves to perform. I do the same. When I embarked on these projects, I was not an expert in challenge-based learning. There's always that little voice in your head: what if it fails? But it didn't and that gave me confidence. I'm grateful for that. Grateful that I work in a creative, innovative place, where I have the opportunity and confidence to put my ideas into practice. And I'm pleased to be able to share my search so that others can learn from it.'
Janneke: ‘So, Elena. Will there be a CuriousU 2.0 next year?'
Elena: 'Yes, we're planning it now. And we are obviously taking on board the lessons learned from the Autumn Challenge. One advantage of coronavirus is that this is the best time to experiment. There's nothing else for it. CuriousU 2021 will be a blended version: a mix of online and offline activities. We want to keep the campus element and the festival atmosphere for as long as possible. But if that proves impossible, we can move to fully online.
And we know from the Autumn Challenge that online also produces great connections and new knowledge!'
Janneke: I hope that not just the students but that the two of us will also meet in person one day. We have so much still to talk about! 'Last question: what would you like to say to your colleagues?
Elena: 'That would be nice, Janneke! I am always interested in other people's stories. I hadn't expected to be asked for this interview. It doesn't matter how big or small your contribution to Shaping 2030 is: we are all involved. And by sharing stories, we can inspire more people to do the same thing - in their own way.'