“Significant attention was paid to how we, students were thinking and progressing”

“Significant attention was paid to how we, students were thinking and progressing” HU
CHARM-EU held its first Commencement Ceremony on 3 February when the first cohort of the joint Master's programme Global Challenges for Sustainability received their certificates in Barcelona. We sat down with Lonci Tóbiás, one of the first CHARM-EU graduates to talk about her educational journey and personal experiences she gained while studying in the programme.

Can you tell us a bit about your background, what did you do, what have you studied before joining CHARM-EU?

I studied sociology during my bachelor’s programme as I was always interested in people and the society. It was clear for me that this was the direction I wanted to go in, but after I graduated I was not so keen on continuing my studies, I didn’t feel comfortable in the Hungarian higher education. So I spent a year volunteering in France, and then I worked for two years before joining the CHARM-EU master’s programme.

What brought you close to the topic of sustainability?

In some ways, it was the coronavirus outbreak, which I think was a turning point for many people. However, our parents also brought us up very sustainably. I don't know if they were conscious about it, but this was natural for me. My dad goes to the market every day, buys fresh vegetables, knows the producer, and never buys over-packaged and ultra-processed food. We never had those at home. We also started to collect waste selectively as soon as we could. In some ways, sustainability got incorporated in my mind-set. And not only at the level of consumption,

because we were also brought up that way culturally,

for example in terms of gender equality, which I believe is linked to sustainability as well. My father is cooking, cleaning and ironing and we were involved in housekeeping from a very young age.

You mentioned that you volunteered and then worked after completing your Bachelor’s degree. Why did you decide to apply for the CHARM-EU Master’s programme?

I really liked the idea of universities working together to create a new model outside the existing framework. We already grew up in the Bologna system with more opportunities, but I think many students experienced that an Erasmus semester can delay their studies or that not all subjects are easy to get recognised. I have found that traditional university education does not necessarily provide the learning experience that I would like to be involved in. I knew that I wanted to and would continue to study, but certainly not in the traditional system. For me, the whole idea of CHARM-EU was very progressive and I felt that I wanted to be part of it.

The Master's programme has several unique features, such as flexibility and mobility opportunities built into the curriculum. Where did you spend your semesters and what specialisation did you choose?

I started and finished my studies at ELTE, meaning that I spent the first and the third phases in Budapest and the middle one in Utrecht. Furthermore, I also visited all of the CHARM-EU cities. During the third phase, I spent a week in Dublin, we had our final conference in Barcelona, and last year I visited Montpellier several times. The structure of the programme

does not include compulsory and optional subjects as in traditional programmes,

which means that our classes are more fixed, but in the second phase, everyone can choose a specialisation. I chose the "Food" track, but I also took almost all the "Water" classes. (The third track is the "Life and Health" specialisation.)

Why did you choose Utrecht for your phase mobility?

During the first phase, we had many teachers from Utrecht University whose classes I really liked. I have also been to the Netherlands before and found the country very exciting. I'm interested in urban development, – it is the field I am currently working in – so I was curious to see and experience what it was like to live in the Netherlands from that perspective as well. Besides, it was also important for me that Utrecht is accessible by train from Budapest and I was not forced to fly. Each time I came home during the semester, I came and went by train.

The CHARM-EU programme offers a fully international, transdisciplinary and inclusive learning experience and is open to students coming from all backgrounds. Based on your personal experience, how has this cultural and disciplinary diversity worked throughout the programme?

There were two girls from India, and we had several dual-citizen classmates with roots from both Europe and beyond, but the majority of students were European. However, we came from very different backgrounds, even those coming from the same country, and it was interesting to see that although we could easily understand each other in many cases,

there were also situations where we had found surprising differences in our perspectives.

This was not a problem at all, but rather an interesting experience. In addition, we came from different disciplinary backgrounds, which was also very useful and diversified our common projects. However, I believe that the completion of the programme was not necessarily on the same level of difficulty depending on our educational backgrounds. In this respect, we proposed the integration of more optional subjects in the structure of the first semester.

You were part of the very first cohort actively contributing to shape and improve the programme for future editions. What was it like to take part in this co-creation process as a student?

I cannot say that it was always easy, but for me it was a very nice experience overall to have a personal relationship with the teachers. In the second phase, they really got to know all of us because of the specializations. Moreover, we always had a direct contact with members from the local staff where we were currently staying and each of us had their own mentor as well. Overall, I felt that there was a significant attention paid to how we, students were doing, what we were thinking and how we were progressing, which was nice. Our individual feedback was also important and sought at many points, and we had student representatives in each semester who attended weekly meetings with teachers and other CHARM-EU staff. Therefore, we had many opportunities to give feedback, and we were often asked for our opinions. Having spoken to second year students, I know that

there have been changes based on our feedback, which is very good to see.

During the final, Capstone phase of the Master's, CHARM-EU students are working on authentic sustainability challenges together with stakeholders from the public, business, or civil sectors. What project were you working on during this phase and with which stakeholder?

It was very exciting that each project team had a societal or economic partner involved in the topic supporting the work as an external stakeholder. When the groups presented their results during our final week in Barcelona, it was interesting to see the diversity of the projects we were working on as the result of cooperation with different sectors. My group was working on a project about social supermarkets and our partner was a Dublin-based organisation dealing with the collection and redistribution of surplus food. Charities have a very long tradition in Ireland, there are many smaller organizations. This social enterprise connects them with businesses with surplus food that has already been removed from the store shelves but is still good. We were collaborating with them, and

it was exciting to be able to travel to Ireland and get to know their processes in person and to better understand how exactly they work.

In addition, we had regular meetings with them during the whole semester, and we had a specific contact person whom we could contact at any time with our questions. In this way, we were able to create a final product that is not only interesting to us, but also, we hope, can be applied and utilized in practice by this organization.

What do you think are the most important knowledge, skills and competences that you were able to develop during the Master’s programme?

This is difficult to summarise, but I believe flexibility, adaptability and quick response to changes as well as problem solving are definitely among them. We also learned how to cooperate in transdisciplinary teams where the members have different cultural and academic backgrounds. In addition, I would highlight independence since within the framework of a given task, it was often up to us to decide what we would like to focus on, and therefore we had a certain freedom. Of course, we also acquired concrete knowledge, especially during the first, preparatory phase of the programme where we learned a lot about sustainability both from historical and policy perspectives. We also refined our entrepreneurial and innovation skills. Overall, we acquired a wide variety of skills and knowledge, and sometimes it is difficult to grasp them, because compared to the structure of traditional courses, the elements of knowledge were more connected and built on one another.

Is there a special experience that stands out for you from the last 18 months?

I very much enjoyed all of our field trips. On the one hand, we had two blended intensive mobility programmes in the second phase – one in Budapest and one in Montpellier – and we visited very interesting places such as markets, wholesale businesses and food security organizations. We also had shorter local field trips, for example in the Netherlands we visited small gardens and community gardens. I always enjoyed those parts of the programme the most when we could actually go to these places, ask questions, and see how they function.

In your opinion, who should apply for this programme and why?

I believe this programme can be considered by everyone interested in learning about sustainability while also being part of a strong community. Despite the fact that we students were practically never in the same place all together, our cohort formed a very strong community. Although I am not in a close relationship with all sixty people, I believe that this community will play an important role in my life. I got to know people from many places, and I can count on them both on a personal and professional level. People were already able to help each other find work through their own network of contacts. Furthermore, there are prestigious universities and very good teachers participating in this program.

This is a very positive, fundamentally supportive and friendly community.

And despite the fact that it is still a new and developing program, it is evident that everyone who is part of it is trying to make it as good as possible. For me personally, it was also important that although I had the possibility to spend all three semesters abroad, it was also possible to study at home, but in English and in an international environment.

Now that you have finished your studies, what are your plans, where do you see your future?

Right now, I'm doing a lot of things in parallel, but that's always been my way. I started a graphic design school along with the master's programme. In February, I started working in urban development and urban regeneration, which is also very exciting and close to my heart. I'm also teaching, so there's a lot going on at the same time. As I said, I studied sociology and I have always been interested in urban space, people's relationship with space and with each other. I’m interested in how to organize a city where people can talk to each other, help each other, build communities together. That is what I'm working on at the moment, and that's what I'm interested in.