Students learning internationalization via conference assistance

Internationality is an integral part of Savonia, accordingly, one goal is that every Savonia graduate is skilled, open-minded, and well prepared for international work. Therefore, being part of organizing an international conference, offers students a great opportunity to learn and train internationalization at home.

Process towards conference work is as follows: Teachers inform students of the becoming event in good time, announce the conference information, and student requirements – qualities – skills, knowledge, and abilities needed – when organizing conference.  Teacher makes a conference assistant announcement that searches students who should be active, extroverts and have ability to pay attention to details, have good and many-sided networking and communication skills (including use of social media and other digital elements), can solve problems and have ability to manage time effectively.

Furthermore, good English skills, both spoken and written language, are recommended. This all means that students interested in conference assistance, apply and introduce themselves both to teachers and customer, conference organiser. The customer and teacher together interview students, and make selection in order to form a well-functioning conference student group. Student get information e.g.  that conference participants bring with them their personal and societal cultural background. Acknowledging cultural diversity, like racial, religious, economic, linguistic and social diversity, increases ‘brilliance’ of international conference, and provides tools to study and train in fruitful learning environment. The onus is on the conference assistant to navigate through this cultural diversity and to have special possibility to learn international cooperation.

After selection, every student makes an agreement with customer, conference organizer, and she/he commits the process. The group gets organized and the roles are chosen, usually there is a project manager and several project assistants. The group decides the roles, which can be rotated during project period. When the conference fundamental information like timing, venue, expectation of amount of attendees, is shared, the project starts. Often organizing body has own duties and conference assistant students their own. Organizing body is responsible for the conference program, budgeting, registration system with fees, venue, accommodation, catering, contacting the media & creating promotional material, and site-events for accompanying persons, for instance. Most commonly, the contact person(s) is nominated who will also be the main point of contact for questions/answers related to the conference. The students can be involved in this task, too, depending of their work experience.

The phases can be divided in pre-conference, conference days and post-conference phases. The tasks are planned, and shared among group members. The conference assistants support project manager in balancing resources reserved, like time and money. They handle administrative tasks such as scheduling and reporting meetings, in addition to assembling and disseminating information. However, the assistants may also perform project management duties when necessary. The assistants need to be organized and manage their own practical study time well, so they can stay abreast of the conference project at all times and know what’s going on through each phase of the project.

Below are listed examples of tasks related to the three main phases are as follows:

During pre-conference phase the student familiarize the theme of the conference, plan who will be in registration desk, in conference room and in guiding other places. Student plan their outlook how participants recognize them e.g. clothing, name badges, how registration desk looks like, for instance.

In actual conference days the conference assistants are helping with all on-site activities on the day of the conference. Activities are e.g.  welcoming attendees, door management, registration check, keeping track of the guest list, get signed license to publish slides given by the presenters, manning the wardrobe, guiding people to right places, etc. one or two students can handle conference related website, blogging, and using social media activities like video-clips for the ‘FaceBook’ (remember to have permission to publish). All earlier mentioned activities or tasks familiarize students to react and work in versatile situations, ‘test’ their language understanding and producing skills. Conference assistants often they get immediate feedback. During pre-conference and conference days representative of the customer, teachers and named manager of the conference assistant group are responsible for supervising conference in progress and ensure  that all issues related to the conference phases are clarified and completed to avoid confusion and interruption during realization of conference.

During post-conference phase student reflects planned activities, their conference working, challenges or problems solved, and report their learning. The report(s) of conference assistants are evaluated by the teacher(s) and customer. Finally, they apply for the study credits.

Conference assistance resembles neighborly help and students should have a ‘Scout attitude’: A Scout makes good use of learning time and is careful of possessions and customer property. Furthermore, a Scout has self-respect and respect for others.

Pirkko Kouri, PhD, PHN, RN
Principal Lecturer in Healthcare Technology
Savonia UAS

Internationalisation for all!

The role of international competences in higher education institutions has been sparking lively debate lately for several reasons. Firstly, financial indicators are highly likely to change during the coming agreement period so that instead of calculating the number of incoming and outgoing exchange students, internationalisation should be integrated in all programme strategies. Higher education institutions have been forced to ideate ways of cross-cutting integration of internationalisation in their strategies. Secondly, the number of outgoing exchange students has decreased significantly.

”Students graduating from Finnish higher education institutions should have the competences to act in international, multicultural environments and understand diversity, global challenges and the principles of a sustainable society”, a quote of the objective explicitly set by the Ministry of Education and Culture already a couple of years ago. It is a fact that, for one reason or another, not all students go on exchange abroad to gain international experience, and therefore other ways of supporting acquisition of international competences during studies must be generated.

The Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture recently published a report: Internationalization at Home in Finnish Higher Education Institutions and Research Institutes. The outcomes of the report were published in a seminar organized by the Finnish National Agency for Education OPH on 29 August 2019, and at the same time, workshops were conducted to define ways of promoting internationalisation at home. The key finding in all workshops was that the quality of higher education institutions will be increasingly defined by their future degree of internationalisation and that internationalisation should be a real cross-cutting theme in all disciplines. Education programmes, goals and pedagogical strategy should comprise elements of internationalisation at home and international competences should be evaluated in the learning outcomes as well. Development of these skills should be an integral part of individual study plans. Development of international competences should not be restricted to students only but should cover the whole staff in higher education institutions. Thus, international competences should be fostered not only among the teaching staff but also among the administrative personnel.

Although development of students’ international competences is integrated with the established strategy of Savonia, the feedback from student questionnaires reveals the inadequacy of international skills based education. The thesis of Johanna Piik, a student in Tourism and Hospitality Management Degree Programme in Savonia, aimed at shedding light to the thoughts and opinions of Savonia students on the subject. In conclusion, the thesis presented an array of ideas for more versatile ways to enhance international competences, such as increased options for language studies, closer interaction between foreign and Finnish students both in school and leisure, utilizing the knowhow of professionals working in international tasks in teaching, as well as exploiting the potential for international collaboration provided by digitalization. The attitude and positive reinforcement by educators was also considered vital.

We in Savonia apply a range of good practices for enhancing international competences. For example, if a group contains even one foreign exchange student, the teaching language can be switched into English in a flexible manner in several programmes. Savonia is using the International Talent Open Badge, now actively sought by students. Short-term visits abroad during various study modules, carousel school models and the like have been developed for those who are not able to go on a long-term exchange abroad. Currently, a multi-disciplinary Summer School is being developed as well.

We have the knowledge and resources to build models for the provision of international competences and experiences also for those who do not utilise exchange abroad. The importance of sharing the competences and experiences related to these models has prompted us to introduce a series of monthly publications, each one presenting one great way to promote the international competences of the Savonians (students or staff). Therefore: Stay tuned for more!

Virpi Laukkanen
Manager of International Relations
Savonia UAS