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Sabbatical overseas: Re-strategize, re-invigorate and re-discover yourself

Time spent as a Fulbright Scholar in Finland was enriching both professionally and personally

Sabbaticals are, generally, scheduled breaks in an academic career that allows academic faculty to steal themselves away from their regular academic activity and focus on professional development.

In my case, the presentation of such a gateway was coincidently boosted with being awarded a unique opportunity by the globally recognized organization - The Fulbright Foundation - which operates with the support of the United States government. Such a unique opportunity afforded to me set in rolling one of the best professional experience.

My sabbatical took me to Finland, Scandinavia, also known as Land of a Thousand Lakes. As a Fulbright Distinguished Chair awardee I was honored to visit with Aalto University which takes pride in offering world class educational opportunities backed by state-of-the-art research infrastructure accessible for academic as well as industrial research. I was entrusted with multiple responsibilities that demanded broad ranging deliverables. These included contributing to STEM-based pedagogical activities and representing as a cultural ambassador of the United States in Finland.  

In Aalto, from a research standpoint, having a well-organized team with a great motivation did wonders. My collaboration with the department of forest products was on topics related to integration of plant-based resources, which was an entirely new area for me, and inorganic materials for sustainable solar energy utilization.  

This research endeavor allowed me to learn with a multidisciplinary group of individuals at the rank of research professors, post-doctoral scholars, graduate students and undergraduates. Working collaboratively on a project that I have never had any experience, was very enriching. I was able to re-strategize my research direction, brainstorm on new concepts, while implementing an idea integrating our two disciplines successfully. I hope this activity can lead to more research topics of interdisciplinary nature that can take roots at the University of Nevada, Reno.  

From a pedagogical standpoint, being afforded the opportunity to teach a course to a multidisciplinary group of students, for the first time across the Atlantic, was a very interesting experience. A one-of-a-kind course focusing on the merits of solar energy as sustainable alternative to fossil fuels was used as a topic, for the first time at Aalto University. In a laboratory component of the class, students were mentored on assembly of a rudimentary solar cell, which helped them realize the challenges in an area of high relevance, globally.  

Some of the things that I learned from conducting this course are the way evaluations are performed, how educational objectives are designed and a snapshot of what are some of the best practices in college level education and mentoring in Europe.  

From an educational standpoint, I learned that K-12 teaching in Finland showcases uniquely planned curriculum at all levels of the children's education and mentoring. My school visits ranged from an IB program, to our Montessori equivalent and a school specializing in music. I realized that a common underlying thread across this wide-ranging focus areas is a distinct and very Finnish brand of education. I noticed that students and teaching staff are involved in respectful and dynamic interactions that ensure a thriving and positive learning environment.  

The curriculum is technically and culturally multi-tiered. It is designed mindful of future needs of Finland as well as the European Union. I was particularly stuck by their approach to evaluating of student performance, productivity assessment and examination protocols. The Finnish education system is considered one of the finest in that part of the world and perhaps it is worthwhile to debate on how some of these elements can be adopted here.  

Finnish MuseumVisit to a Finnish museum.

Finally, from a cultural standpoint, Fulbright ensured awardees experience Finnish culture up close. The awardees (who range from experienced researchers to highly qualified K-12 teachers to high-achieving undergraduate students) are exposed to a kaleidoscope of Finnish culture. My highlight was meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Finland, H.E. Charles Adams as well as visiting the Finnish Parliament and meeting with senators and key scientific advisors to the government. I was able to participate in a crash course of Finnish history (visit to a Finnish museum) and language, enjoy gourmet food and desserts (no points if the top guess is Fazer brand of chocolates), and visit to an old fashioned Finnish-style city, Turku. This was a re-invigorating experience.  

The cultural aspect was by no means a one-way street. I was afforded the opportunity to speak about America and 'being American'. As an immigrant American of Indian origin I had a unique perspective of the melting pot that is the United States of America. The American Voices forum was a wonderful platform, unique to Fulbright Finland that allows awardees to showcase various aspects of America and her culture to Finnish audience. I was able to speak not only about America but also Nevada and her uniqueness - which was well received. I was able to change the perspective that Nevada offers much more than what it has been traditionally known for.   

Since returning home, I reminisce about how the discussions and positive experiences with prior awardees jockeyed me to apply for the Fulbright program. With a first-hand experience I think any sabbatical is a great and re-discovering experience but something such as a Fulbright is enriching to the mind, changes you for good forever, gives you a global perspective, and makes you crave for more. As a Nevada resident keeping with our institution spirit, I hope that my experience opens more opportunities to benefit not just the institution here but also the various communities of this region.

Ravi Subramanian blog photo

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