Written by Sustainable Systems Management Student Annabella Lau
At the end of October, I had the privilege of visiting FH Muenster University of Applied Sciences for the 2023 “Moving the Cities” program. The program joined 63 students to solve a regional sustainability problem in teams with representation from over six nationalities, 11 universities, and many academic disciplines.
Split into strategically grouped teams with multi-national representation from Austria, Brazil, Chile, Germany, the UK, and the US, we were prompted to identify a problem, any problem, and present our solution in a 3-minute business proposal pitch. Furthermore, we were challenged to incorporate the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 17, “Global Partnership for Sustainable Development” in our solution.
What makes Moving the Cities distinct and uniquely valuable from other study abroad programs is how it brings students from countries around the world to work together. The open-ended nature of the prompt requires students to work closely and collaboratively for any progress. The diversity in academic backgrounds on our teams brought many perspectives and skills to the table, but also conflicting goals and interests between team members. This seems to mirror the challenges that greater international entities face when working together.
My group combined our interests in renewable energy and community engagement by working on a solution to improve electricity access in least-developed countries and chose to pilot our project in Tanzania. We proposed to connect local businesses and residences to community solar arrays where large grids weren’t accessible. To improve the system’s sustainability, and in alignment with SDG 17, we paired the solar microgrid construction with an education exchange to train community members on renewables and how to maintain the system.
I was very interested in Moving the Cities because I study sustainable systems management with a focus on sustainable business products, and my job as a project assistant with Climate-Smart Municipalities (CSM). CSM, hosted through the Institute on the Environment, provides a platform for Minnesotan and North-Rhine Westphalian stakeholders to collaborate on renewable energy and climate-smart projects. Since we have representatives from the City of Muenster and FH Muenster University of Applied Sciences in CSM, Moving the Cities was an incredible opportunity to combine my work and education interests.
On our first day of the week-long program, we all participated in highly valuable and insightful intercultural training. Many of us began this program with an inclination, assumption, or expectation about how other people from each nationality would present themselves. I had never worked in an education or professional space abroad and quickly became very aware of my nationality. On a personal level, one of my more profound takeaways from the program was my own identity conflicts between the seemingly opposite stereotypes of what’s expected from an Asian American woman in the United States and what’s expected from an American internationally.
Most of the student delegations from the US knew English as their first, and often only, language. We were privileged that this program was delivered in our native language. Navigating how to incorporate everyone’s voice equally despite differences in language proficiency was a challenge. I noticed that some voices dominated the conversations and some spoke a few words without being prompted to. Throughout the whole week, I considered ways to involve and create space for quieter voices without putting group members on the spot and causing more discomfort. While I believe some differences in vocal representation are due to differences in English language proficiency, I suspect there were cultural differences in our groups pertaining to how much or how assertively one is expected to speak.
The challenges that my group and I faced during the Moving the Cities program can mirror those faced by international groups collaborating on sustainable development goals. The prompt is incredibly broad, establishing a firm financial bottom line is indispensable, navigating communication barriers is tricky, and members often have conflicting goals and perspectives.
While I expected my key lessons to be about international sustainable business, the best experiences I took home were working on multinational teams, cultural competency, and truly cherished relationships with students around the globe.