Stefan Pfalzer, photo by Victoria Lin

Student mobility, or acquiring cultural fluency: Interview with Stefan Pfalzer, CIVICA Ambassador


Stefan Pfalzer, CIVICA Ambassador and master’s student in the dual degree programme between Sciences Po and The London School of Economics, explains what mobility means to him and shares his experience of studying at two different institutions.

CIVICA - The European University of Social Sciences fosters exchange and cooperation between its eight member institutions, on all levels. This ambitious initiative enables member institutions to advance their common mission of education and research in the social sciences in order to multiply opportunities for students and best prepare the next generation of citizens to build a common future across frontiers.

We talked to Stefan Pfalzer, CIVICA Ambassador and master’s student in the dual degree programme between Sciences Po and The London School of Economics. Stefan Pfalzer is half Austrian, half Egyptian, and grew up in Austria. For his undergraduate degree, he studied at the University of Vienna and spent his third year at Sciences Po in Paris.

You have just begun the second year of your dual master’s programme between Sciences Po and The London School of Economics (LSE). Why did you choose this dual degree between these two universities?

Stefan Pfalzer: First of all, the complementary academic traditions of both universities highly appealed to me. I really wanted to return to Sciences Po, where I had studied on exchange in 2017. Sciences Po is quite practically-minded: many classes are taught by professionals who are experts in their field. In my area of study (International Security), I was able to take classes taught by former representatives of the United Nations and career diplomats, but also professionals from the private sector who were able to share their first-hand accounts of what goes on in the world outside of academia. On the LSE side, I knew classes would be more theoretical in their approach and I would be confronted with a whole different way of thinking. It was this balance between the two institutions that drove me to enrol in the programme.

I also really wanted the chance to pursue a master’s in two different languages and to live in two different countries. In my opinion, a dual degree offers the opportunity to develop a kind of cultural fluency. It allows students to live in different places amongst other open-minded, international students. It also gives students the opportunity to learn not only from professors and professionals, but from their peers and their new surroundings.

What does mobility mean to you? What are the benefits of a mobile experience?

I think the experience of going abroad is immensely enriching: even when you return home after being abroad, your experience in the other country will always stay with you. Living abroad is almost like filling up a suitcase with more and more experiences, but instead of the suitcase becoming heavier, it gives you more buoyancy and stimulates the way you look at the world.

For our generation, it’s become pretty common to study and live abroad thanks to programmes such as Erasmus+, which make it much easier. I have no doubt that living abroad makes people more open-minded. I find that it’s very hard to maintain stereotypes once you've travelled abroad. The first time I came to France during my bachelor’s degree, I realised how differently France’s security establishment saw the world, compared to Austria’s outlook. In retrospect, it seems obvious due to the two countries’ difference in size, their histories, and the fact that one has nuclear weapons and the other doesn’t. But even knowing that, I had to go abroad to really grasp this difference, and improve my understanding of domestic debates and my ability to identify gaps back home.

How do you think studying at two different institutions can impact your academic experience? Can you tell us a bit about your current academic interests?

Primarily, I think that studying at two different institutions opens more doors and gives you a wider choice of opportunities and outcomes for your future. In terms of my dual degree, Sciences Po has helped me be very practically-minded and well-prepared to enter the professional world, while LSE is giving me a strong theoretical and methodological foundation, which could prepare me for a PhD. 

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, studying at multiple institutions creates more bridges and multiplies the connections in your mind between subjects and disciplines. You learn how to approach problems from various angles. I realised during my undergraduate studies that the Austrian approach is very different from the French one, and I’m now learning that the French one is also very different from the English one. 

In different languages, thoughts are structured differently, and this has an impact on many levels. For instance, in France, the two sides of an argument are each given equal weight. In the United Kingdom, you are encouraged to choose a side and only argue for that side. Even though you know there may be good points on the opposite side, your goal is to weaken them. 

Studying at different institutions gives you the tools to adapt to different circumstances and cultural settings, which ultimately opens more doors for your future and gives you the keys to navigate different jobs and life situations. I think that this skill set is invaluable for our generation.

How do you think CIVICA can have an impact on students’ experience and what do you expect from the alliance? 

Although the member universities of CIVICA are already collaborating in many different ways, CIVICA can take this cooperation to the next level by offering courses that span across universities, deepening the dual degree structures that already exist, and making the advantages of these institutional collaborations available to a wider range of students.

CIVICA’s primary benefit is that it exposes students to other ways of learning and conducting research. On the research side, it will hopefully allow PhDs to exchange more and build a network to better promote their findings and achievements. CIVICA can also bridge the geographical gap between universities. In the long run, I think it can create even more synergies between the partners, and the dynamic of CIVICA will become more than the sum of its parts. 

Student mobility is at the heart of CIVICA. Although many students within the alliance already benefit from mobility through existing Erasmus+ exchange programmes and numerous dual degrees, CIVICA will take student mobility to the next level. One of CIVICA’s key objectives is to transform various current student mobility experiences into a common one: a truly European inter-university campus.

CIVICA is expanding the space for European mobility both physically and virtually. While traditional physical mobility opportunities are multiplied through the extension of Erasmus+ mobility contracts throughout the alliance, the development of a digital European inter-university campus is a key component of CIVICA, especially in today’s context. 

“In the future, students at all levels will benefit from even more opportunities to participate in physical and virtual exchanges. In particular, the CIVICA Engage Track will enrich the experience of physical exchange within the alliance on the bachelor level. In conjunction with other initiatives, joint bilateral and multilateral courses will be offered at master’s level, and a common integrated European space for early-stage researchers will enhance physical and virtual mobility on the doctoral level,” stated Frank Stadelmaier, Senior Manager of CIVICA at Sciences Po. 

When asked about student mobility in a post-COVID world, Frank Stadelmaier envisions that “unhindered physical mobility will eventually be back in full force since nothing replaces such a unique experience. But new virtual and hybrid forms of mobility will still be able to enrich the traditional one, allowing students’ minds to travel and expand, even through screens, so to speak. With our multiple approaches to mobility - physical, virtual, and hybrid - CIVICA is perfectly situated to play a key role in this new world.”

Written by Charlotte Landes (Sciences Po)

Photo: Stefan Pfalzer in Belleville, in Paris; credit: Victoria Lin 

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