Daughter of Scotland, Mother of ERASMUS
by Elizabeth Willoughby
Jean Schleiss, a native of Scotland and LMU's International Exchange Unit Coordinator, received the DAAD ERASMUS Prize 2010 for her outstanding contribution to the ERASMUS program over its 23-year evolution at Munich's university.
Newly wed and newly arrived in Germany in the early 80s, Jean Schleiss recalls that she was optimistic but a bit naive. She sees the same in many students she sends abroad each year on LMU’s ERASMUS exchange program, as well as in the foreign arrivals to Munich’s campus. Close to 700 LMU students spent a semester in another EU country in the last academic year. Jean says many return calling it the best experience of their lives.
Such confirmations make it all worthwhile for Jean Schleiss, who’s been a part of LMU’s ERASMUS development from the start. Before that, she was the study abroad administrator in LMU’s International Office, a job she began, literally, as she was interviewing for it. Cutting the meeting short, she was introduced to a line of students all needing information on studying abroad. In those days, she worked alone. Today she heads a team of ten, most of whom have lived abroad, and she loves the job as much as she did 27 years ago.
At one point, however, Jean did attempt a sojourn – to give birth – but that was around the same time the ERASMUS program appeared and, before her son was much more than a year old, the head of student affairs asked her to come back to run things. “He had the foresight to see that something could really develop out of it,” says Jean.
The evolution continues
ERASMUS was organized quite differently at the beginning. Exchange opportunities were initiated by professors who had set up networks with partners in different countries and received funding directly from the European Commission. Then DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service, became the national agency for ERASMUS’s over 200 universities in Germany and the program structure changed. Today, Jean Schleiss’s team liaises with partner universities and writes bi-lateral agreements, manages outgoing students and professors, and helps incoming students with finding accommodation, doing admissions and registrations, sorting study programs, advising courses and liaising with departments for students. “Thanks to her commitment, we have a set of structures and procedures that can serve as an example for all exchange programs at LMU,” says Dr Stefan Fuchs, Head of the International Office.
But the world is a changing place, today’s students are an Internet generation and Jean Schleiss recognizes that the program must reflect that. She has, for example, just moved to an online application process and is planning to devise more interactive orientation days. She and her team have more ideas too, like providing intercultural training programs and establishing platforms and activities linking past exchange students to new ones to create a support network for better integration.
“My heart is really with the incoming students,” says Jean, “I’m very much aware of the problems they face when they arrive – at first you think you know everything.”
Abroad even the basics are a challenge, and so is everything else.
Once, a wheelchair-bound student’s tires exploded on a Friday night, but Jean was able to track down a repairman before he locked up for the weekend. Many times have students turned up early for the fall term to join in Oktoberfest festivities – a time of year when hotels are generally full – which is how many a student has ended up in Jean’s kitchen peeling potatoes for dinner and camping there for a couple of nights. “One must count oneself lucky to have such highly motivated people who are so devoted to their work,” says Professor Reinhard Putz, VP for International Affairs. “I have even heard it said that Ms. Schleiss is referred to as ‘Mrs. ERASMUS’.”
“I think I probably did mother a lot of the ERASMUS,” she says. “I’ve always had a sympathetic ear and try and solve their problems without too much bureaucracy. I like to think of the incoming students as being part of a family.” Besides the DAAD award, there is an even greater one for Jean: “When our students come back, they’ve learned tolerance. They’ve learned to be flexible. The exchange makes them open towards other countries, mentalities, and it makes them question things at home. It makes them critical thinkers.”
Originally published at insightLMU, September 2010
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