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"One must always be ready to adapt to new situations"

4 Jun 2021

Dr. Dongmei Zhang is on the staff of the International Office, and looks after international doctoral candidates at LMU. Here she talks about her career and the intercultural challenges of the job.

The clatter of approaching high heels can be heard in the corridor. Then Dongmei Zhang comes round the corner, with sunglasses pushed above her forehead, briefcase in hand, and a cativating smile on her face. "I’m late, sorry! My appointment at the Embassy took such a long time!" These remarks alone tell us a good deal about her job at LMU. It entails regular contacts with, and visits to Asian embassies, lots of appointments, lots to do – but always in good humor and dedicated to her work.

So what exactly is her function? "I work in LMU’s International Office, and I’m primarily involved in the management of academic collaborations with China, as well as Tokyo and Singapore. I supervise a number of different projects, but at the moment most of my time is taken up by the Chinese doctoral program LMU-CSC." This program brings about 40 Chinese PhD candidates to LMU each year to embark on a PhD project, and Zhang knows each of them personally. She is responsible for the administrative side of things – application formalities, selection of candidates, advice and guidance, liaison with the Chinese partner agency. – But she also provides assistance when unforeseen problems turn up, "Not just for the Chinese PhD students. Occasionally, the German professors who supervise their studies also come to me for advice.

Between Bavarian culture and excitable PhD students

Dongmei Zhang was born and grew up in Beijing, where she did one Master’s degree in Biology, and another in English and American Literature. Thanks to a family friendship with a German couple, she was able to visit Germany for the first time in 2003. From then on, she made regular short visits to the country .“My friends live in Bad Reichenhall and I learned a lot about the country – and about Bavarian culture – from them," she says.

Her long acquaintance with Germany makes it easier for her to understand the problems and difficulties that international postgraduates can encounter, and it helps her to find workable solutions. "When they arrive, they often assume that they will have no problems fitting in," she says. "But adapting to a new environment is never as easy as it might appear. After all, they grew up in China, they have imbibed the Chinese lifestyle, and the only educational model they know is the Chinese one." Students in China are given clearly specified tasks. In German universities, on the other hand, much more emphasis is placed on independence and self-reliance, especially when it comes to doctoral studies. “So I think it’s particularly important to advise them to be patient, to show them that it’s quite normal for things not to run smoothly at first. – Even their professors are sometimes at a loss in the beginning, because they are accustomed to the more straightforward approach of their German students.”

“I never wanted to restrict myself to one subject”

In this context, Zhang has one great advantage – her versatility. Not only is she familiar with intercultural differences, she is well acquainted with many areas of science and scholarship. “I began by studying a classical science subject – biology,” she says. But she soon realized that she was interested in many other fields as well, and didn’t want to concentrate on just one. “Of course, my parents had my best interests at heart, and wanted me to study something that offered good career prospects. So I asked my father directly whether he really believed that I only wanted to become a biologist, when I was fascinated by so many other fields as well,” she recalls with a grin. She won the argument, and it was clear that she could pursue her other interests as well. “Soon after that, I began to learn Japanese on the side. And then I realized that I wanted to study English and American Literature.” – In the end, she earned two Bachelor’s and two Master’s degrees.

This broad spectrum of interests has remained with her ever since – as evidenced by her many journeys around Europe to visit churches (which she can stylistically analyze and classify) and her conversations with faculty members – whose wishes and problems she has no trouble understanding.

So how did she get to LMU?

Zhang laughs a lot, and this question provokes another one. “That too is a complicated story,” she says. “I was already very interested in German culture during my Master’s studies. Every Thursday evening, I went to see German films, which were introduced by a handsome language teacher from Salzburg. – That’s why I adapted so quickly to life with my German family in Reichenhall.” She later enrolled at LMU as a visiting postgraduate for a year, and then applied to do a PhD. "At first, I was unsure what subject I should choose. But I finally decided on Psychology and Education, where my prior knowledge of biology was a great help." During and after her studies in Germany, she explored the intercultural attitudes of Chinese students.

Intercultural perspectives have always played a significant role in Zhang‘s life – and when the International Office advertised a project-related position, she was immediately recommended for the post by her PhD supervisor. “In 2014, after I had obtained my PhD, I was appointed to the position. I find my work so stimulating and valuable, because I can offer assistance to many Chinese doctoral students, on an academic, psychological and personal level – and to their professors as well. The search for workable intercultural solutions is what makes the job so exciting. And although I’ve been doing it for years, these intercultural differences keep popping up in different guises. One must always be ready to adapt to new situations."

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