Advice to new MESPOM students from Jennifer Lenhart '07 (USA)

November 22, 2009

Greetings MESPOMers,

My name is Jennifer Lenhart, MESPOM alumna from the first batch (2005-07).

To the current students: I hope you are enjoying MESPOM and its various locations, connections, friendships and adventures!!!  :-)  As you prepare to decide your thesis subject, please know it is ok to have many topics, thoughts, uncertainties and loose-ends untied.  Actually, for those I have spoken to, it seems you have many good ideas and concrete topics. But I know it is never easy to make the final decision on what you will do, where you will do it, and what you can 'contribute' to the greater field of scientific knowledge + research.  Anyway, I thought to share a few suggestions (based on my own process of confusion and reflection):

1. Have fun with it… what a huge opportunity to spend 4 months of your life dedicated to learning something that you are sincerely interested in - and more so, doing it in an international context, in one of the most pertinent fields of our current period.  Our planet need us, and with COP15 at our backdoor and a lot of attention going to education, the environment, energy and related policies… we are really at a key point in history, so enjoy it!  I think I have to quote Al Gore here, "It is a privilege to make a difference for the future…”

2. The most important part of a thesis is the process of learning you will encounter.  Yes, the aim of your thesis is to ‘contribute to scientific knowledge’… Definitely, this is important.  But more important is that you learn why this is relevant to you and how you can contribute afterwards.  I can attest that my thesis was by no means brilliant in the grander scheme of things or created a revolution in scientific thinking… certainly not.  But I do know I learned: the process of research, the key authors and ideas in my field, how to balance different topics and perspectives, who to interview, how to build contacts, when to know what is enough… and to really enjoy it.  Yes, I think looking back, I did enjoy it.  Here I have to share an all-time favourite quote of Buddha: “Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.”

3. Field projects and internships: Of course while the 'process' is the most important part of the journey… it is nice to land somewhere, and so getting attached to a particular project can be useful, both for your learning and knowing you are supporting active research.  I know many of you are in contact to organizations already… good.  In this, the professors are willing to do help.  For my thesis, I worked with my current employer and got the contact via MESPOM professors.  Conferences and events are also good.

4. Consult your professors and contacts.  MESPOM faculty and staff are here, willing and eager to help.  They have been through this before and they know what is feasible and interesting, and can help point you to contacts, research projects, etc.  I spoke at length with some of them, and they really want to be a part of the process, but they can't help if you do not come to them.  Whether you have problems, challenges with MESPOM, thesis, a particular course, etc… they are keen to know where you are, what you are thinking, what you are interested in or hesitant about, so that they can improve particular issues or make this process easier… but it is up to you to consult them first.

5. Pick a good supervisor.  By now you are probably getting to know the MESPOM staff, and external (potential) supervisors.  I can tell you that the majority of the IIIEE staff are very dedicated to your thesis work and do not supervise because they 'have to' but because they enjoy it and are committed to it.  I will never stop being thankful for my supervisor’s attention to detail, but also to see the bigger picture - she could find a paragraph on page 53 that belonged on page 6, and helped organise and streamline the writing process… she is one of my heroes most certainly and was as much a part of my learning as the actual document.  There are many others like her.

6. Relax and take advantage of this unique opportunity and experience: Enjoy your winter holiday, your weekends, and take a few days off - perhaps after the next few assignments are due - to do nothing regarding thesis.  Clearing your head is the best way to balance your thinking, and to avoid burnout.  “Everything in moderation,” as my father always says… :-) 

And, as an old MESPOMer myself… I remember the endless hours in the library, but more so I remember the time with my own classmates - the dinners, the travels, the adventures… this 'glue' is an essential ingredient to MESPOM, your own sanity and to produce a better final product.  Sometimes we have to step out to see the picture in more clarity…

7. MESPOM: For all its idiosyncrasies, intensities, charms and character… MESPOM is often quoted as one of the very best Erasmus Mundus courses.  What makes MESPOM different is perhaps not so much the quality of education - because there are many good programmes out there - but the sincerity of it… even engaging students and alumni in the writing of MESPOM2 shows our opinions matter.  The fact that our professors are highly regarded in their fields - professionally - but also want to have dinner with us, and invest time on our personal and group work, as well as an active alumni network that can only be described as 'family' makes MESPOM truly unique.  (And these alumni networks will be handy later on as well…) I spent 2 years as an alumni representative with Erasmus Mundus and met students and alumni from a broad spectrum of EM courses and other university programmes.  Certainly nothing is perfect, but in discussing MESPOM with other students and alumni, as well as the EM masterminds and decision-makers in Brussels and elsewhere, they are always impressed with the balance between study, practical experiences and engagement of MESPOM.  Yeah… I am pretty much a fan. :-)

So my sappy little reflection is merely an attempt to encourage you in this process, no definite words of wisdom (sorry), but more empathy in the journey.  Nothing good is ever easy, but there are many persons around you eager to help.  If you want to meet for a beer or a coffee, I am always here to listen or discuss.  I guarantee you I suffered (personally) from a mixture of over-enthusiasm in the broader area of 'urban sustainability', without a concrete notion of where to 'land'… one of the most important words I remember from discussions with Naoko, Håkan, Aleh and others was: STREAMLINE.  Anyway, after all of it, I am happy with the opportunities that came along the way… and have learned to balance my enthusiasm (or confusion) with networking, building experiences and learning the key stakeholders in my field.  From conversations with the most of you, I think you are far more impressive than I ever was and I am excited to see where it takes you!  So, enjoy it!

 Happy learning,