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IMC Krems celebrates the International Day of Tolerance

Tolerant interaction: An interview with lecturer Maria Veronika Surboeck

The International Day of Tolerance on 16 November was created to remind people how quickly intolerance can arise as a reaction to something foreign or new. Since education is considered an important building block to guarantee tolerant interaction with each other, IMC University of Applied Sciences Krems feels committed to tolerance across the board. Part-time lecturer Maria Veronika Surboeck integrates intercultural competence and tolerance education into her courses.

Portrait von Maria Veronika Surböck

Lecturer and honorary professor Maria Veronika Surboeck’s objective is to increase awareness and sensitivity towards any minority in all of her classes.

Tolerance is considered an elementary pillar in the peaceful coexistence of humans, because only by means of tolerant interaction with each other can everyone have the freedom to be who they want to be. At IMC University of Applied Sciences Krems, the effects of equal opportunities and diversity, and thus tolerance, are directly related to the core activities of teaching, research and administration. IMC Krems therefore celebrates the International Day of Tolerance, which was established by UNESCO in 1995, with great conviction.

Tolerance as part of the corporate values

Diversity and equal opportunities are anchored in the strategy and corporate values of IMC Krems. To send a clear signal regarding diversity, the university signed the Austrian Diversity Charter in 2013. At its core, the Diversity Charter promotes respect for all members of society – regardless of gender, age, ethnic origin, skin colour, sexual orientation, religion, world view and disabilities. With the aim of continuously developing the area of diversity and equal opportunities, the Advisory Board “Gender & Diversity” of IMC Krems was founded in September 2019. The advisory board meets regularly, evaluates ongoing activities and sets new measures, which are defined, implemented and assessed on the basis of surveys and evaluations.

Intercultural competence and tolerance in teaching

Maria Veronika Surboeck is one of those lecturers who teach tolerance and diversity. Among other things, she was trained in environmental management and virtual management. Since 1989 she has been working as a management consultant in the field of organisational development and change management to support the implementation of corporate strategies. She lived in the USA for almost four years. Most of her consulting projects took place in European countries. Since 2004, she has been teaching part-time as an honorary professor at IMC Krems and is involved as a visiting professor at universities in Mexico, Ukraine and the Netherlands. In addition, she has been offering her services as an e-learning content creator and lecturer since 2019. As a lecturer, she places a special focus on intercultural competence and training for tolerance. In our interview, Maria Surboeck explains her approach.

Thinking of global interrelationships, what meaning, or importance do respect and tolerance have for you personally?

I’d like to start with a quote from Paul Watzlawick: “The belief that one’s own view of reality is the only reality is the most dangerous of all delusions.”  At times when globalisation and technology are drawing us closer together into what we would refer to as a global village, it’s benefits will only prevail if there are also mutual respect and tolerance towards each individual. Respect is about seeking to understand people, allowing them to believe what they believe, even if we disagree. Respect for someone means recognising the other as a valid person. Tolerance means acknowledging and appreciating that we are all different. We do not share the same opinions, there are no judgements or blame; rather, there is a space of freedom for every point of view, culture and thought in a space of respect. Tolerance can be demonstrated in many ways. A person might fully disagree with others on any issue, from religion to politics, while at the same time honouring and respecting those with different ideas and opinions, treating them with respect. Tolerance does not mean that only one person or group shows tolerance and the others do not. When people disagree on an issue, they must support their opinion in a respectful manner. Tolerance must be shown from both sides on issues in order for it to be effective. Tolerance is needed in all areas of life; on every level, on every stage, it plays a vital role in establishing a sound base for cooperation. At this point Popper’s paradox of tolerance comes to my mind: “In order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.”

Talking about tolerance – how do you cover this topic in your classes?

The objective in all of my classes, but especially in “Training Intercultural Competence”, is to increase awareness and sensitivity towards any minority image and leverage levels of tolerance displayed by students. It is about looking beyond stereotypes and appreciate the diversity of foreign, minority, and gender groups. One exercise I like to integrate early on in the course is called “Group Membership”. Its objective is to create a supportive environment in which the students can disclose their group memberships and experience what it is like to be part of a minority group. Students form a large circle, and as I call out different group names, such as “who has not read any of the Harry Potter books?” these students are to go inside of the circle. I repeat that with a couple of different names. Afterwards it is time to discuss and reflect. Typical questions are “how did it feel to be in the centre of the circle?”, “were you comfortable being stared at?”, “how did it feel to be on the outside of the circle?” or “how did you feel about those colleagues in the centre with you?”. This exercise always leads to great astonishment and partly even shock. For students who have never experienced what it is like to be member of a minority group this really is eye-opening. Another activity aims at creating awareness on how quick we are in biasing based on stereotypes and labels. For that exercise I ask them to tell me the features and attributes of a soccer player for example. What you hear then is a list like “well trained”, “male”, “tattooed”, “not too smart”, “drives a Ferrari”, “faking injuries”, and so on. On most of the characteristics almost all students agree. I then show them a picture of Pernille Harder for example, a female Danish professional footballer who plays as a forward for Chelsea and the Danish National team. She is also known for her LGBTQ+ advocacy and won the UEFA Women’s Player of the Year Award in 2018 and 2020.

I continue that activity with “a model” who “obviously” is blond, tall, silly, anorexic, etc. The picture I show them in this case is one of Tess Holliday, who became the world’s first US size 22/UK size 26 model to be signed to a mainstream modelling agency and to lead brand clothing campaigns. (Business Insider, 2015) One can imagine already that this activity can be followed by many more examples such as an athlete (who in the picture is disabled), a nurse (male), a construction worker (female Chinese). And one can also imagine that the message is clear after a few examples: we all make judgements and stereotype based on our experience and our learning. It is hard not to form prejudices and stereotypes, but we can keep them from influencing how we act with others, and that we should always question our stereotypes.

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