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 „Em­bra­cing cul­tural di­versity“: How an Ir­a­nian vis­it­ing pro­fessor ex­per­i­enced her stay at HNU

29.01.2021, Faces :

As the crow flies, there are 3,761 kilometers between Kashan University of Medical Sciences (KAUMS) in Iran, located south of Tehran, and Neu-Ulm University of Applied Sciences (HNU) in Bavarian Swabia – two universities with a common focus on health management that have been linked by a close university partnership across national and cultural borders since 2017.

Iranian scientist Zahra Meidani, professor at KAUMS, told us in an interview what this partnership is all about: She was a guest at HNU from January to July 2020 and reports in retrospect how she experienced her stay, where she sees the significant differences between Iranian and German universities and what she took away from her time at HNU.


Zahra Meidani next to HNU president Prof. Dr. Uta M. Feser
Zahra Meidani next to HNU president Prof. Dr. Uta M. Feser


Zahra Meidani graduated from Tehran University of Medicine in 2012 with a degree in Health Information Management and worked as a lecturer at Hormozgan University of Medical Science in Iran before receiving her PhD. She joined the Health Information Management (HIM) Research Center at KAUMS in 2016. Meidani's research focuses on the application of information technology in health services utilization management.


From a day at work at KAUMS to teaching and research at HNU

A normal working day for the Iranian professor begins with a look at the KAUMS website to keep up to date with what's going on at her university.

This is followed by a number of face-to-face meetings - still the most common form of communication in Iran, she says. This includes counseling sessions with her students, especially freshmen: Meidani supports them in achieving their study goals, encourages them to attend classes regularly and supports them in their social development. The Iranian is also involved in mentoring Health Management Institute (HIM) PhD students and those postgraduates studying at KAUMS in the HIM Master's program. She guides students in developing research projects and study designs, assists with data collection, and helps with manuscript preparation.

In January 2020, Meidani finally suspends this workday for a few months: She decides to take a six-month sabbatical at HNU.


Three good reasons for a stay at HNU: Internationality in action, many opportunities for interdisciplinary cooperation and the DigiHealth Institute

There were several reasons for this choice, the Iranian scientist explains to us. One important point was the international orientation of HNU: "HNU has over a hundred partner universities worldwide. Working here as a visiting professor is a great opportunity to expand one's own cooperation with other universities around the world."

She was also keen to push forward the Letter of Intent (LOI) signed between HNU and KAUMS in 2017 and deepen the connection between the two universities. "The LOI," says Meidani, "existed mainly on paper before my stay – new impetus was given here through my sabbatical at HNU."

The HNU Institute DigiHealth was then also decisive: "For someone like me, whose research focuses on IT implementation in healthcare practice," explains Meidani, "the DigiHealth Institute with Prof. Dr. Swoboda and his highly qualified staff was a real stroke of luck." As part of HNU's International Week 2018, the Iranian had also already been able to make some personal contacts with HNU colleagues.

Overall, the diversity of disciplines represented at HNU, from healthcare management to information management to economics, was an influential factor, says Meidani. For example, it gave her the opportunity to work on economic aspects of healthcare under the supervision of Professor Dr. Elmar Steurer: "This disciplinary diversity promotes interdisciplinary teaching and research in the direction of the next generation university."


(Not) a culture shock? Meidani's reception in Neu-Ulm and the differences between the German and Iranian higher education systems

When Meidani receives a scholarship from the Iranian Ministry of Health and organizes her stay at HNU, she first needs a valid visa – a process that turns out to be more lengthy than expected. Fortunately, she says, she received great support from Neu-Ulm: "I owe my stay at HNU to the commitment of the president and her assistant, who promptly took care of the problem and solved it in correspondence with the German embassy in Iran". Once she arrived in Germany, the International Office (IO) made it easier for her to settle in and dealt with any culture shock right away, says Meidani: "Whether it was a visa extension or practical questions during her stay, the IO was always a helpful contact.

The biggest difference between Iranian and German universities? The health scientist sees it in the state support structures. "In Iran, only the Ministry of Health, and not the Ministry of Science, is involved in the training of medical personnel - and this includes both practical doctors and experts in health management or health information technology," Meidani explains. In addition, she said, at a university of applied sciences like HNU, the proportion of industry collaborations and practice-oriented teaching is naturally higher than at universities like KAUMS . "At HNU, the third or fourth generation of universities focuses on innovation and entrepreneurship as well as market-oriented and interdisciplinary studies. Cooperation between universities and industry is intensively promoted. I hope that KAUMS is currently also in this transition to a third-generation university."


As far as the healthcare system is concerned, the electronic health record has not yet been fully implemented in either country and there are still a number of unresolved issues – social, organizational, legal or ethical – that need to be clarified. "In Germany, however, the stable infrastructure and the state of the art promise a quantum leap once these barriers are overcome," Meidani predicts.

Looking back, the Iranian scientist describes her stay as personally and professionally enriching. "What impressed me most," she says, "was the enormous commitment with which I was supported here and how they ensured my successful stay. However, she was not surprised by the structured support: "The Germans are known for being well organized and disciplined...".

In addition to the deeply rooted idea of cooperation, Meidani also noticed something that she summarizes as "embracing cultural diversity": the special sensitivity for cultural differences at HNU. One experience has left a lasting impression on her: "I was visiting the cafeteria when a staff member, who must have noticed my headscarf, tried to explain to me that the menu of the day included pork. I didn't understand German – but she didn't give up and specially asked a colleague to come over who spoke better English than her." Cultural sensitivity, says Meidani, is a skill that is becoming increasingly necessary for teachers in an increasingly global world and in the context of growing internationalization activities – but which also takes time and intensive effort to acquire. 


In the return luggage: a deeper understanding of global trends and many ideas for further collaborations and conducting cross-national research

What benefited most from the HNU stay was her understanding of global trends and megatrends, says Meidani: "I realized that you can't think 'locally' about an internationally successful cooperation project."  During her stay, Meidani accordingly paid close attention to advancing the cooperation activities between KAUMS and HNU: Together with her Neu-Ulm colleagues Prof. Elmar Steurer (opens in a new window), Prof. Walter Sowobda (opens in a new window) and Felix Holl, she worked on two DAAD projects and sounded out further cooperation opportunities and points of contact between the two universities. "Rome wasn't built in a day either - of course we still need some time to realize further projects," Meidani emphasizes - but she is sure that this partnership will continue to be expanded productively in the future: „KAUMS and HNU can easily collaborate to covert he main priority of German Funding Organizations in the field of medicine and public health“.

Per­sonal de­tails

What do you like to do most when you're not teaching and/or researching?
Reading, sightseeing, rafting, and mountain climbing.

My area of expertise in a few words: 
Using information technology for utilization management in health care services

HNU is ...
... a second home and a friend

This is the phrase I like to hear most from my students:
I am inspiring, role model, and creative

My current read:
"Speak to Win: how to present with power in any situation" by Brian Tracy

My next publication ...
... will be in the area of application of information technology in utilization management of health care services