Ribhu & Katerina's Story

Ribhu Nirek & Katerina Eichhorn / 10 min read

Learning to lead in higher education during times of uncertainty.

After a three-week Global Leadership Programme with Universitas21, two students from the University of Maryland and Lund University share their experiences of developing the skills needed to thrive as leaders in the 21st century.

Global higher education – like many other sectors – is at a pivotal moment, experiencing a time of rapid change and uncertainty. There is a need to shape the future quickly, to repurpose and reinvent. In addition, the advancement of digitalization and technologies has opened new ways of learning and accessing knowledge. The future of universities demands that leaders adopt new approaches, effect rapid innovation and collaborate more across internal and external boundaries. The next generation of leaders will face unprecedented challenges as they play an important role in shaping this new future.

The U21 Global Citizenship was an online leadership development course that brought together 1,500 emerging, student leaders from Universitas21’s (U21) 27 member universities in order to develop the skills needed to thrive in the 21st century whilst tackling some of the world’s most pressing problems – through the lens of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The U21 cohort spanned across 18 countries and gave students a unique opportunity to engage with their peers from the global U21 network whilst advancing an SDG they are passionate about.

Ribhu Nirek and Katerina Eichhorn were nominated by the University of Maryland and Lund University respectively to undertake this course. Over three weeks, Ribhu and Katerina worked with interactive content at their own pace, and also joined real-time discussions with international colleagues and leadership experts. Here they reflect on their experiences of exploring diverse global perspectives on learning to lead in higher education.

Ribhu Nirek: 

I feel proud to share my experience of the U21 Global Leadership Programme. I had the opportunity to connect with qualified peers worldwide, and to learn about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and leadership strategies. The programme challenged my preconceptions, and enabled me to better collaborate with individuals spanning diversities and hierarchies. This was a major step for me in becoming a truly global citizen.

My chosen goal was SDG 13: Climate Action; I believe it is imperative to work towards combating climate change and its adverse impacts. Rising global temperatures, increasing sea levels, greenhouse emissions, and fossil fuel consumption are major concerns related to this issue. What is not commonly known is that the Australian bushfire of 2020 was a consequence of the climate crisis as well. This effected the flora and fauna, social, economic and human life in a devastating way. Not taking action to interfere in this process is the equivalent of letting a time bomb tick on its own – the catch is that we are living on that very time bomb.

This issue requires major attention and widespread collaboration to make impactful progress. At the grassroots level, it calls for the citizens of democracy to gain awareness about this shared problem. It is realizable by the dissemination of information to the general public. On the other end lies the responsibility of the people who sit on the upper echelons, wielding power. A new flavour of leadership is necessary in order to engage with the youth of today. Being active listeners to the perspectives of people of all ages, sexes, socioeconomic status and cultures is a must to solve problems plaguing our society. Like all long and short journeys, this too shall begin with the first step. And this was my first step.

The Global Citizenship Programme prepared me for the very first step. Through blogs, insightful articles, podcasts, TED talks, I gained exposure to contemporary global issues. In order to improve our understanding of these issues and to self-reflect, we penned down our thoughts every week in written assignments. The forum discussion boards were particularly active and those dialogues only contributed to developing our perspective further. The most fascinating elements of this experience were the live Zoom sessions. With a massive number of participants (500+) joining from all across the globe, the Zoom events were so rich and diverse. It was amazing to hear the journeys of the individuals that I connected with in the breakout rooms. I could never have imagined taking part in such an enriching experience on a virtual platform.

I would like to thank Universitas21 for this amazing experience. It was refreshing to meet with curious individuals from 27 countries with their unique personalities, and surprisingly converging perspectives towards the SDGs.

Katerina Eichhorn: 

I am very grateful that I had the chance to participate in the U21 Global Citizenship programme provided by Universitas 21 and Common Purpose. Throughout the summer, I participated in an online course about the Sustainable Development Goals at Lund University. I got an email with the opportunity to connect with students all over the world and learn more about the SDGs and develop leadership skills to tackle global issues, I was in.

The goal that I chose to work on and to reflect on was SDG 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production. I started my own journey to reduce plastic waste with small changes in my daily consumption around 3 years ago. However, learning about the current consumption and production patterns and gaining more knowledge about issues surrounding them, I have realized that it is not the plastic waste alone that threatens our environment. The current consumer culture of industrialized countries and profit maximization as a company’s purpose are problems that need to be tackled at the root. As it is easy to get lost in the complexity of sustainability issues, one course assignment was to think about changes I can implement today to advance my chosen SDG. Some things I have already implemented are: reusing environmentally-friendly bags for grocery shopping, taking a reusable water bottle with me (key is reusable instead of single-use), buying books second-hand, and buying fruit and vegetables in a local store to support local farmers, zero waste packaging and organic agriculture. I identified the areas that I would like to improve as: purchasing clothes and technology second-hand, reviewing business practices to assess a product’s sustainability throughout the supply chain, and writing to businesses to change practices I disagree with. In my opinion, sustainable consumption and production can be a huge leverage to achieve sustainable development because of its interconnectedness with other goals such as Life Below Water (SDG 14), Life On Land (SDG 15), Climate Action (SDG 13), Good Health (SDG 3) and No Poverty (SDG 1), to mention a few.

As a global citizen, I feel that it is important to be exposed to different perspectives, so it was great to meet all of the fantastic students on Zoom throughout the programme. Initially, I was a little overwhelmed at the thought of joining 500 fellow participants who were also attending the meeting but as soon as we went to the breakout rooms my worries settled as all the participants were kind and pursuing the same goal – creating a great atmosphere for inspiring conversations to happen. I really enjoyed the discussions, it was amazing to get to know the views and challenges people face all around the world when addressing certain problems. Furthermore, I really liked the structure of the different modules - short, informative modules connected with interesting TED talks, and room for discussion and sharing thoughts about the concerning topic.

A big thanks to Universitas 21 and Common Purpose for developing such a great course and for the possibility to experience the positive vibes of collective action.

Ribhu Nirek is an Associate ML Engineer for Extra Space Storage and Katerina Eichhorn is a Junior Project Manager in Sustainability Services at DEKRA Assurance Services GmbH. They both took part in the U21 Global Citizenship programme, in 2020.

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