Saturday, June 3, 2017

Post GPP (Switzerland) Trip Reflection

I am sitting in a train running at 300 km per hour (186 miles per hour). While the view outside is nice, the train goes through really long tunnels. So to utilize my tunnel time, here are some of my experiences and learnings from the GPP trip:

The GPP trip got over two days ago. It was a fun-filled experience but exhausting at the same time. We visited 8 universities in period of 8 days, talked to professors, deans, and students at those universities. I found almost all of them to be very receptive of us. During my visits to the universities, while I was interested in learning about different facets of the higher education in Switzerland, France, and Italy, I was particularly interested in knowing how the universities handle the issue of linguistic diversity. Switzerland has four national languages – German, French, Italian, and Romansh. In order to ensure the mobility of students, the universities need to devise some system through which students who do not speak a particular language in a fluent way can still attend any university they want to without any language consideration.

However, what I found was very interesting. Universities, generally, impart instruction in the language that is spoken in the area. For example, in the Zurich region, the language of instruction is German, while in the Ticino region, the language of instruction is Italian in the universities. Some of the course are taught in English as well. In Zurich, one of the professors told me that the Swiss learn multiple languages while they are growing up. For example, someone growing up in the German speaking part learns to speak French and vice versa. Moreover, a lot of people learn English given the global presence of the language. During my stay in Switzerland, I did not find anyone who I could not talk to due to language gap. Almost everyone could understand and speak some level of English. Even while in France, which takes quite a bit of pride in its language, I did not have many issues when I was once lost in a cafeteria. While all the servers could not understand me there, they called in someone who could.

Another aspect that I learned about the Swiss higher education is its stress on quality. At ETH Zurich, I learned that while all the students who want to pursue engineering are given admission, after the first year, many who do not meet the standards are weeded out. This is not to say that students are not provided with resources to help them succeed during the first year. I found this to be in quite contrast with the US engineering education where there is a lot of push to retain students in engineering.

There were many more subtle differences among the education systems in different European countries that I observed and between European countries’ and the US education systems. Moreover, the way people behaved in general varied across different countries in Europe and different parts of Switzerland. Of all the people I met, I loved the most how Italians and Swiss-Italians conducted themselves. But more on that later as I am about to reach Rome soon! :)

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

On the Eve of Departure

Europe - a place I have head is very beautiful and a place I have wanted to visit for a long time. I still regret the fact that I was not proactive enough to apply for a summer internship in Europe during the junior year of college. But no more regrets! I am going to Europe tomorrow and am pretty excited about it.

The purpose for going to Europe is to visit universities in Switzerland, Italy, and France and learn about the higher education system in those universities, and at the same time forge research collaborations with those universities. Given my interest in learning about higher education and especially how academic cultures vary across the globe, I am really looking forward to this trip as this trip will unravel some of the intricacies of the higher education system in European universities for me. I am specifically interested in knowing how the universities that I will visit address the issues of diversity and inclusion, given they have a diverse student base that not only differs on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender but also differs in terms of linguistic abilities.

While I am excited to be going to Europe, a part of me is nervous as well. I think there are two reasons for my nervousness. First, I have some kind of travel-phobia where the fear of unknown makes me very scared of traveling. Before travel, I am usually anxious about whether I am forgetting some important things that I should pack or if I will be able to reach to the airport in time or something else on similar lines. Second, this is the first time I will be traveling in countries which do not speak Hindi or English. And to be honest, I am a little scared about that aspect.  I have been to the Dominican Republic before where people speak Spanish but I went there with a school group and all the arrangements where done by our hosts to make sure we are comfortable once we reach. This time, I do not get to meet with the school crew until I spend three days there by myself. I was thinking about it yesterday morning - what happens once I reach the Munich airport and need to know specifics about the local transport system and nobody speaks English? What happens if I have to find directions on the street and I ask people and nobody understands me? I know that it will be not as bad as someone will understand and speak English (my English privilege), but as of now the fear of unknown dawns upon me.

While I aim to forge professional collaborations while I am in Europe, I aim to build personal friendships with many, especially the ones who will be with me as part of the school crew. I think there is something about being together in a foreign land that brings people together in unique ways. Needless to say, I am excited for the educational and cultural experience. See y'all in Europe!

Friday, March 17, 2017

More on Visa Hassles

So, the last time I wrote about the challenges in figuring out the forms and documents that are required to apply for a Schegen visa. The latest news is I applied for the visa and appeared at the Swiss embassy in Washington DC last week, and today I received my visa. Yayyyyyyy!!! Hopefully, there will be no more immigration hassles before I reach Germany (my first destination in Europe).

The visa interview went rather smoothly. My appointment was at 9:15 am on March 9. I reached the embassy at around half past eight along with Rabih, who is also going to Europe with the Global Perspectives Program (GPP) group. We waited for half an hour before we got inside the embassy. When it was time, they called my name and I went in for the interview. The interview went smoothly in that the officer asked me about my purpose for going to Switzerland (and Europe in general) and how I will fund the trip. They also asked for proofs of my enrollment at Virginia Tech, details about my stay in Europe, and my medical insurance. A complete list of the documents required to obtain a Schengen visa can be found here.

One of the requirements for obtaining tourist visa to visit any Schegen area is that the visitor needs to provide proof of stay in the Schengen area, either in the form of hotel reservations or letter from family or friend that specifies that the visitor will stay with them. I had already gotten the required letter from my friend in Germany but the officer wanted my friend to email the letter directly to them. So, my visa got approved on the condition that the embassy receives a letter from my friend directly.

The next morning, I got an email from the embassy that said my medical insurance for the trip was not adequate as it did not cover the entire duration of the trip, and I needed to purchase another insurance that covers the entire duration of the trip. The university had only purchased insurance for the duration of the GPP program. And the visa officer had earlier told me that they do not accept Aetna, the insurance that I currently have. After spending many hours in figuring out the documents that were required to apply for the visa and traveling to DC, I now had to spend more time in figuring out how to extend my insurance duration. It did take an hour and $60 to get that.

So, each time I apply for visa, the entire process of obtaining the documents and making sure I have all the forms filled up correctly seems more difficult than actually planning the trip abroad. At these times, I really feel jealous of people who can do visa-free travel to most countries. More about that in a later blog.

P.S. 1) I had done a blunder in filling out the visa application form. In the place of birth field, I had filled in Blacksburg and in the country of birth filed, I had written USA. The visa officer corrected that for me.
2) The Swiss embassy had minimal level of security I could have imagined for an embassy. There were no security guards at the entrance.
3) There were no restrooms (for visitors I guess) in the embassy.
4) The visa officer did not take the visa fee from me. She told me that as my purpose of visit is study, I do not need to pay the fee. This is interesting because someone else who is going on the same trip was asked to pay a visa fee of 60 euros.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Trip to Europe and Visa Hassle

The new year brought good news for me in that I was accepted as one of the 15 participants to the Global Perspectives Program (GPP) offered by the Graduate School at Virginia Tech. The trip entails visiting universities in Switzerland, France, and Italy to learn about higher education in those countries. And to add to that joy, the Graduate School pays for most of the trip to minimize the financial burden on students. I assume this learning experience would be one of its kind where one is not only gaining knowledge along with traveling abroad but also having all this experience with minimal cost out of one's pocket. Everything great. But is it?

The first challenge I have been facing is in obtaining the Visa for my travel. Given I am an Indian passport holder, I require a Schengen Visa to go to either Switzerland, France, or Italy. And there are multiple hassles in obtaining any Visa (I have applied and obtained Visa for the USA and Canada in the past).

So my hassles in trying to obtain a Schengen Visa started with finding out the right website to figure out what I need to do in order to apply for the Visa. And it was not easy - there were numerous websites that gave information about which documents I need or how I can apply for the Visa but none of them were official. So, while I had the information, I did not know how much I could believe that information. After talking to many people, I finally found out the website of the Swiss embassy that gave me more legitimate information about what I need to do to get a Schengen Visa.

But my pain did not get over here. Once I figured out which documents I need to apply for a Visa, the list seemed unfair and almost like a nightmare. I am required to provide them with a medical insurance during the period of my stay, which makes sense. But they also require me to get my travel tickets and hotel bookings for my entire stay. The Graduate School has been helpful in getting the tickets and accommodation confirmation well ahead of time, but what do I do for the duration when I travel on my own in Europe? How do I plan a trip so much ahead of time and also get my hotel reservations done? And never to mention that I will have to travel to DC to appear for an in-person interview.

I hope the Visa interview goes smoothly but I sure will write another post about it if it does not. And definitely, I will write more posts about Visa policies across the wold and how it is skewed in favor of "richer" countries.

Till then, Tada!!