Meet the experts. Higher Education Internationalizations VS COVID-19 - Gianluca Samsa, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore
How did you manage to keep your team engaged, focused and motivated at the peak of the emergency and then afterwards?
The policy and work culture of Università Cattolica has always been based on a student-centred approach and for many years our operation has been organized so that everyone in the team is fully trained in the importance of the service we provide students throughout their time abroad. Even in normal times, we only see our pre-departure and post-return services as efficient if we maintain a high level of contact with students, partner universities and international authorities. As far as safety is concerned, for some years now we have included training on procedures and tools for safety while abroad in the pre-departure orientation meetings and the students all install an app which facilitates calls to emergency numbers in the host country, the insurance company helpdesk and our office (which is active 24/7). The app also allows students to give us their geo-location in real time while they are abroad.
Even with all this preparation, I was still impressed by the dedication and serious-mindedness that came to the forefront in the response to the emergency situation around the spread of the Coronavirus. We had roughly 700 students already abroad and almost 200 ready to depart on many different types of programs in practically all continents: Exchange, Study Abroad, Internships and Double Degree programs. Everyone worked literally day and night so that none of our students missed out on support in that phase.
Apart from the official communications that were sent out at crucial moments, even greater time was spent on managing individual situations that came to our attention. In some cases we made sure that students were able to get back home via complicated routes and in some of these cases the attention and dedication shown by the team was amazing and moving.
The whole team is now just waiting for the moment that we can return to advertising new outbound programs and initiatives without the worry that they will have to be cancelled or postponed again.
Which procedures and resources did you put in place to support and guide students who were abroad when the COVID-19 emergency started?
We have kept in contact with students at all times and have passed on communications from local and international authorities: WHO, the Italian government, foreign governments, the University etc. Working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the embassies has been particularly useful for us to reach realistic balanced judgements which take into account the students’ worries and the worsening health situation in Lombardy which made it far from simple to take a decision to return from abroad.
Practically all of the students who returned and all those who stayed abroad have had the opportunity to continue their studies or internships remotely, as a result of the incredible flexibility shown by all the partner universities and companies.
Where this has not been feasible, initiatives have been prepared with the various Faculties to ensure that no student is penalized with regard to recognition of credits or approval of their international tracks.
All means of communication have been used to contact our students and make sure they know that Cattolica is supporting them. The International Office also used social media to post updates and stories so that although the offices were closed there was still, as far as possible, a personal relationship with them and so that the students could feel supported throughout all the steps of this difficult moment.
Is there anything that you are learning from the momentous experience and you want to share?
In an emergency, nobody can be competent in every single field, and relationships become even more fundamentally important. The worst thing to do is to get caught up in anxiety and think you can make decisions just based on your own experience. Even more than in normal life, in the precarious situation we found ourselves in our network of relationships and others we know has proved to be an invaluable resource for locating information, sharing points of view, making clear judgments and, yes, for sharing human comfort at such a worrying time. I am immensely grateful to the professionals, our colleagues at Cattolica and international colleagues who have endured my endless calls: our field is rather unique in that we are not just colleagues, but a global network of friends.
Article featured on Worldbound, edition n.4-2020.