Hands, Minds–and Trees–Across the Sea

The forests of North America are different from those in Finland and Sweden, and the management of these forest resources differs historically and culturally. But environmental and forest resources issues are no respecters of national borders and global solutions are needed in today’s global economy. So Michigan Tech’s ATLANTIS program at the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science (SFRES) is preparing graduate students on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean to tackle the world’s forest resources challenges.

ATLANTIS (Actions for Transatlantic Links and Academic Networks for Training and Integrated Studies) is an educational program jointly funded by the US Department of Education and the European Union. Only 16 such grants were awarded in 2008. Michigan Tech’s partner universities are North Carolina State, the University of Helsinki in Finland and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

Graduate students from each university spend up to a year at a foreign partner university, as well as up to a year at their home institution, earning dual master of science degrees from both their home and host universities. The program provides for faculty exchanges as well. So far 10 Michigan Tech faculty have spent time at the Swedish or Finnish universities to establish new collaborations, and a total of 24 graduate students will earn their degrees through this program.

An Estonian Student Comes to Tech

Tõnis Tõnisson, 25, is one of the ATLANTIS graduate students. An Estonian, he was studying in a cooperative program between the Estonian University of Life Sciences and the Swedish University of Life Sciences when he heard about the ATLANTIS program.

Tõnisson’s father works in forestry, and he wants to work in forest management. More than 50 percent of his native Estonia is covered with forests. “I grew up in the forest,” he explains, “and I wanted to study abroad.”

The fact that Michigan Tech courses are taught in English was no stumbling block for Tõnisson. He has studied English for 11 years, and the courses at the Swedish University of Life Sciences were taught in English. However, “I never had to speak English before. People here speak so fast, and they use more vocabulary than I know. But everybody has been really understanding and helpful.”

Another challenge was the high academic standards at Michigan Tech. “It is very different here,” Tõnisson says. “The university’s expectations of the students are much higher. I think I am learning much more here.”

Students here also have a lot more freedom than students in Estonia or Sweden, says Tõnisson. “And I am surprised at how open the people are here. They are much more talkative and friendly.”

Living on his own in Houghton, the Estonian student plunged right into campus life, playing soccer with international students over the summer and joining a bowling league.

Tõnisson spent a semester in Sweden and one in Finland before coming to Tech in January 2011. He is doing his graduate work with Kathy Halvorsen, a professor who holds a joint appointment in the Department of Social Sciences and the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science. He will finish his dual master’s degree program in December and return to Estonia to complete another master’s degree for which he is already enrolled.

A Michigan Tech Student Goes to Scandinavia

Kassidy Yatso, a graduate student who also earned her Bachelor of Science in Applied Ecology and Environmental Science at Tech, spent one ATLANTIS semester at the University of Helsinki and the second semester at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. She is back on campus now, completing her master’s degree work.

Yatso learned some surprising things while she was in Scandinavia, which she shared with the Tech community through a blog. (See Abroad.) For example, “No one in Sweden stands in line,” she discovered. “You push a button, and a paper slip comes out with a queue number. A large board shows which number they are serving, so you can guesstimate when to return for service.”

She also found that Swedish postage stamps, at 12 krona–approximately $1.85–are the most expensive stamps in the world. But the Swedish postal service is much more efficient and reliable than the one in Finland, the American student says.

Yatso’s academic experiences don’t reflect Tonisson’s impression that graduate school is more demanding in the US than it is in Scandinavia. In her April 17 blog, she describes a week that included a thesis defense; three demanding assignments for an intensive, two-week silviculture course; and an all-day field trip to Snogeholm to study multiple forest management techniques and current landscape architecture trends.

She still found time and energy to hear some live music by an all-girl Swedish band at a club in Malmo. “I was absolutely blown away,” she blogged. “They are now one of my favorite bands.”

No More Funding for ATLANTIS

The ATLANTIS program, a victim of federal budget cuts, won’t be funding any new programs, although Tech has already received the funds to complete its project. But Michigan Tech is going to try to find a way to continue the joint degree program with the Scandinavian universities.

“The European-American perspective provides invaluable benefit–a global perspective–to our students and the students from overseas,” says Chandrashekhar Joshi, professor of plant molecular genetics in SFRES. Joshi, who was graduate program director for SFRES when Michigan Tech applied for funding for the transatlantic master’s program, heads ATLANTIS at Tech.

“On return from abroad, the students’ vision has changed,” he says. “They become more outgoing. They transform into leaders. They seek more interactions with others. They act like global citizens.”

Yatso enthusiastically agrees. “The ATLANTIS program changed my life,” she says, “by giving me an opportunity to learn about science, culture and myself–while earning two master of science degrees. I have learned invaluable life lessons, skills and vocabulary along the way as well. The people I have met through ATLANTIS will forever be in my life and heart.”

Joshi points out that the dual degrees that the students earn are another benefit “of tremendous value in today’s job market.”

Since ATLANTIS began in 2008 in SFRES, two other international dual-degree programs funded by the same agencies have been established at Michigan Tech. One is in rail transportation; the other is in volcanology.

by Jennifer Donovan, director, public relations
Published in Tech Today