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Looking back – how staying at TU Dortmund University changes perspectives

As part of the International Week that took place November 5-9, the TU Dortmund University’s Rector Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Gather invited international freshmen, PhD students and international returnees to our “16th International Reception”. Thanks to the Martin-Schmeißer-Stiftung, we were able to invite five international alumni to Dortmund who engaged in the lively round-table discussion „Spotlight: Alumni International” and shared with the audience, how their stay at TU Dortmund University has influenced or affected their professional and maybe even their private life.

Christine Watt got a degree from Westfälische-Wilhelms-Universität Münster, TU Dortmund University and her M.A. from the University of Virginia. She is German and works at the boarding school Tabor Academy in Massachusetts today.


Silke Viol (International Office): You are living in the U.S. today and you finished your studies at TU Dortmund University. Do you feel more German or American?

Christine: The question whether I feel more American or German is really difficult for me to answer. I have been living in the US for 20 years now, and I am probably somewhere in between. I definitely do not want to give up my German citizenship as my German origins are still an important part of who I am today. However, I have lived in a foreign country for so long now that America is part of me as well. Going abroad changes who you are. The first thing you usually think about when going abroad is that you will get to know a new culture. You often forget that living abroad will change you as well as you will suddenly see yourself in a totally different way and start to think about why you are the way you are. I started wondering about how “German” I am, and how much is not specifically tied to the culture I grew up in. After living in the US for 20 years, I am the sum of all my experiences, some German, some American, and some not tied to any nation at all.

Silke: In how far have your studies at TU Dortmund University prepared you for the job you are doing today?

Christine: When I was a student at TU Dortmund, I studied German and American studies and Music in order to become a teacher. Although I am neither a teacher of English nor a Music teacher today (I work as a librarian), I have learned the most important thing about learning: What matters more than content is to learn how to ask and answer questions, how to analyze, how to do research, how to write and express yourself. Life is not a straightforward line. You might end up working in a field that you didn’t start out with. When you approach graduation, you might wonder how you can ever be prepared in your field as you have only studied a tiny portion of it. That is why the strategies and the skills we learn along the way are a lot more important than just content. I had some great teachers in Dortmund who prepared me for my journey, and I am still learning a lot every day.


Dr. Magda Barecka is a process engineer in projects in chemical and pharmaceutical industry in Switzerland. She worked and did research in Poland, France, Spain and in Germany.


Silke: You are the first PhD-student who came through the Cotutelle-Agreement between Lodz and Dortmund. Why have you picked Germany, Dortmund, TU Dortmund University in the first place?

Magda: TU Dortmund University is a very recognized institution in the field of chemical engineering and it was so helpful to be a part of an organization that everybody knows. Studying in the heart of Ruhr Area region is also a great asset, as key chemical companies are located here, hence the contact is facilitated and cooperation between academia and industry is particularly strong. Last, but not least many universities offer a bunch of international partnerships, yet few can offer such close and well structured collaboration as handling a double PhD Diploma. I am very happy and proud to be the first Alumni to get such a title, which is an inestimable asset in my curriculum. TU Dortmund employees and particularly my supervisor Prof. Andrzej Górak were extremely helpful and engaged in pushing this project forward.

Silke: Why do you think is an international experience for a scientist necessary?

Magda: International experience in science is not necessary, it is a MUST. When we start to work abroad, to experience different culture, we are obliged to question basic, simple things that we would never tend to question. Being exposed to new environment forces to open your mind and gives an enormous creativity, which is a basis of any scientific work or innovation.


Stephen Watt is Chair of the English Department at the Tabor Academy in Marion, MA, since 2016 and has been working there since 2003 as an English Teacher. He got a degree from the University of California, was an exchange student in Marburg and received his Masters Degree at the University of Virginia. During his time there he spent two years at TU Dortmund University as a teaching and research assistant.


Silke: Why do you think should students, faculty and staff at a university go abroad?

Stephen: Aside from the many excellent responses the other international alumni have given, one reason that university students, faculty, and staff should go abroad is to hone the very skills that define us as academics. As members of the university, we are supposed to challenge our own thinking, discover and ponder new ways of seeing the world, and work collaboratively with people outside of our departments and even outside of our institutions. Study abroad inherently offers its participants all of these opportunities, simply by asking them to engage with a culture other than their own.

On an even more fundamental level, I think that study abroad is of the utmost importance if we are to address some of the most troubling trends of our time. Be it in the United States, Poland, Brazil or even Germany (just to name a few examples), there is an increasing fear, even demonization, of foreigners and migrants today.  One way to combat this is to become a foreigner yourself by studying abroad. See what it is like to be “the other”: to struggle with a language, to be lost and confused by different customs, to periodically feel alone and misunderstood, even to be made fun of from time to time. Only in this way, will we be able to empathize with what those foreigners in our own cultures are going through. Only in this way, will we be able to find productive solutions to successfully integrate these people into our society.


Silke: Please finish a sentence for me: “If I hadn’t stayed at TU Dortmund University, today I would be….”

Stephen: Single and lonely (I met my wife-to-be at the Technische Universität Dortmund J). Sometimes trying to integrate another culture into your own life can take on a wonderfully personal dimension!


Heidi Lim graduated from Harvard University in 2014 in the field of environmental engineering and took part in the first round of the Ruhr Fellows Program in 2012.

Silke: You were “the face/voice” of the Ruhr Fellows Program in 2012 because you wrote a very entertaining blog during the program. What did you tell people back at Harvard University who probably didn’t know anything about Dortmund?

Heidi: I've often told my friends I could imagine living in Germany one day. Everyone is so friendly in Dortmund, the city has a strong sense of its own identity and heritage, and everything is very easy to get to by train. I had some incredible experiences related to industry in the area, including seeing liquid steel being poured at the Thyssenkrupp factory. Of course, the beer is spectacular -- I always try to drink German beer when I can in America. 

Silke: “I will forever remember this fellowship in Germany as a transformative experience.” You wrote this over six years ago – have you often thought about your experience since then? And why do you think was it important for your career today?

Heidi: I think about my time at the Ruhr Fellowship all the time. Now that I am graduated and in the real world, my experience at the fellowship has helped me develop a worldly mindset in the workplace and in my own personal perspective. I've been trying to get back to studying German because I will want to spend more time in Germany again hopefully soon. Even the friends I made in the program have stuck with me all this time. Just earlier this year, I went on a week-long trip in Southeast Asia with three other Ruhr Fellows from my year. The Fellowship was the first and only time I lived abroad and I expect that I'll think about the Ruhr Fellowship for many years to come.


Arthur Francisco de Oliveira Cagliari got a degree in Journalism from Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Campinas in 2014 and  was one of  the first students within the “Science without Borders Program”.

Silke: Have you faced a situation in your career where your German and/or European perspective was helpful?
Arthur: Yes. I think that I actually work now at Folha a little bit because I have an experience in the German society. During the interview, in which I was chosen to work there, the Chef of the Newsroom did a lot of questions about my life in Germany and how this experience affected me at all. In Brazil, we kind of follow some international media, mainly of countries which have a solid democracy. And I had two experiences in German newsrooms and I think that was the reason why time in Germany was so important for my boss at the time Interview at Folha.

One situation (that is fresh in my head) happened before the German election in 2016. I asked the Chef of the international section if I could write a text about the last interview of Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz before the “TV Duell”. Merkel would give an interview to ZDF and Martin Schulz to ARD. In that time I worked there with social network. She told me I should not worry about that because it wouldn’t be so important for Brazil and so on but if I wanted to write I could do it. So I decided to write some paragraphs about the Interviews. And during the day we were surprised that the text about the Interviews were read a lot of times. Two month ago I had a lunch with some important German manager in Brazil. We talked about the complexity of Brazilian taxes, competitiveness in Brazil and the relationship between Brazil and Germany. I am sure they talked really clear and direct with me just because I have already lived in Germany and I could understand their point of view.

Silke: Are you still in touch with faculty or other German or international students from that time?
Arthur: Yes, I still have some contact with Professor Fengler. She was in Brazil a year ago or something like that to do an a presentation about accountability research. We met at the University of Sao Paulo and it was really nice. Besides she wrote me a recommendation letter in 2015 for a Job in the German Embassy in Brasilia during the Olympic Games in Rio. I came until the last stage of the application but I didn’t get the job. Unfortunately. Some German friends I still have contact and some of them have already visited me in Sao Paulo. And maybe in this week I will meet some of them here in Dortmund. Besides, in May a friend of mine (from the TU Dortmund time) helped me with a candidature of Deutsche Welle. She gave me a lot of tips, and again I came till the last stage of the application. I knew here some Brazilian people too, from other places which not Sao Paulo (Brazil is really Big!!!) and we keep still in contact too. We have a group on WhatsApp and so on. 



Silke: Thank you for sharing your experiences with us!