Returning to International Travel: Report and Reflection

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Part II:  L'Europe à moi tout seul

by Ian Rowlands

Ian Rowlands is embarking upon his first international trip as Waterloo’s Associate Vice-President, International since 2019. In a series of articles, he will briefly reflect upon the three stages of the trip, providing a brief overview and some analysis. The second up is his first of two weeks in Europe.

I spent the past week (27 June – 1 July 2022) in Europe, engaging in some institutional visits as a representative of the University of Waterloo, meeting with key partners for the purposes of advancing Waterloo’s internationalization goals.

In this post, I reflect broadly across two areas: first, some discussion about the pros and cons of intensifying long-distance travel (i.e., taking fewer, but longer, international trips); and second, my thoughts about getting back into in-person interactions.

As suggested by me in my previous post, this was the week that was caught in between: this trip, as a whole, originated with the desire to develop European visits for University of Waterloo President Vivek Goel, and those visits will occur next week. The opportunity to engage in the Commonwealth activities in Rwanda then arose. That left this week as the week in between.

I could have returned to Canada after my week in Rwanda, and then, a relatively short time later, come back to Europe with the President. In the end, however, I chose to stay in Europe for the week, and to schedule additional visits to further advance the interests of the University of Waterloo. Let me share some of the factors I considered to arrive at this decision, as well as some of the ways in which things actually unfolded.

In advance, the first consideration related to my desire to limit air travel and the associated greenhouse gas emissions. Had I returned to Canada and then flown to Europe a week later I estimated that this would have resulted in an additional 12,000 km of air travel. Using a number of carbon calculators, I generated a range of greenhouse gas emission estimates for 12,000 km from a low of 0.63 t CO2 to a high of 3.14 t CO2. For the sake of this discussion, let me take the lesser estimate of 2.31 t CO2e as the amount of air travel-related greenhouse gas emissions that I avoided by staying in Europe for the week. (Of course, I fully recognize that this trip has still had significant climate impacts)

To give that number some context, I went to the TreesCanada carbon calculator, and – if I interpreted correctly – two 6,000 km flights generate the same greenhouse gas emissions (at least by their measures) as: (a) me driving the family van 5,000 km; or (b) my share of the household energy (natural gas and electricity) consumption for a year. So, this is a significant number.

There were also cost considerations, as I fully recognize that Waterloo International (and the University of Waterloo) should use its resources judiciously. It is certainly the case that there was a net cost to the university in keeping me abroad for that additional week: there was the savings of the flight (which is not insignificant, given rising travels costs), but there were additional costs for accommodation, food, and travel (by rail) during this extra week that I was in Europe. These costs were greater than the savings. However, these net expenses were much lower than a standalone single one week trip to Europe that I might have completed at some other time.

Finally, I would not be in the office in Waterloo that week. Not to suggest that my presence is invaluable, but some presence – for multiple reasons – can have benefits. Of course, the last two years have taught us that we can do much of our work remotely. Add to that the six-hour time difference (and a four-day work-week this past week in Canada), as well as the usual means of asynchronous communications (mainly email), I anticipated that I would still be able to have a presence in the office, as needed.

I did indeed continue to have a presence in the office as last week, I chaired the monthly meeting of the International Operations Council on Tuesday, attended another university-wide meeting that day, and I had a number of 1:1/small group discussions with colleagues on both Tuesday and Wednesday. Naturally these were in my evening, after a full business day of engaging in Europe, but to do them was relatively seamless. There are other issues around this, of course – number of working hours; ability to be away for extended periods; colleagues not wanting to bother me knowing I was away, and thus not securing that presence benefit, but I still had some level of engagement during the week.

Let me conclude these reflections on intensifying long-distance travel with two additional comments.

First, when one intensifies international travel, one is hoping that one’s prospective hosts have a lot of availability, so that the most can be made of the time abroad. (By contrast, if one does many short trips, one can often simply go when the prospective host prefers.) Therefore, like an optimization problem, I had to generate a meaningful schedule this week, constrained by the following factors:

  • I was restricted to particular working days (the week of 27 June to 1 July);
  • I wanted to have impactful meetings - though Europe has, by one count more than 2,500 universities, I had to select the few that I should visit;
  • I wanted to meet the right people at these universities, which often meant my peer (the Associate Vice-President, International or equivalent) and leaders in areas in which we had meaningful activity or the potential for the same
  • I wanted to avoid air travel within Europe, and I did not want to spend all of my time on the train (going from location to location)

The interested reader can review my tweets (and see the map below – from Google) to judge how I did. I certainly feel that I yielded an extremely high-value (and relatively dense) schedule, and I am grateful to the many organizations who hosted me and with whom I had wonderful interactions.

Map of Germany and Belgium and the Netherlands

Secondly, planning for a multiple-week trip across two continents and different kinds of official business proved challenging. To amend a phrase from another context, I felt inclined to say "I am sorry these suitcases are so full and so numerous, but I did not have much time to pack". Additionally, being risk-averse (you never know, I might need that sixth different tie), and wanting to take Waterloo gifts and souvenirs for those who would host me and for those whom I would meet, meant that my membership of the "never check a bag" club remained elusive.

Finally, let me offer some thoughts about getting back into in-person interactions, and in particular, engaging with peers from international offices at universities and embassies abroad. Overall, it was wonderful. As I note above, I was hosted so warmly and professionally – by multiple organizations in the Netherlands and Germany. It was so meaningful to share perspectives with international colleagues. Of course, there is a role for technology and virtual engagement, but there is also great value in physically being in the room with colleagues – communicating directly in multiple ways, being in offices and laboratories, and wandering around campuses and other locations. For me, at least, connections seem to be made more readily, be more multidimensional, and progress in a relationship seems accelerated. These interactions are by no means cost-free, but they are valuable.

In summary, it was a wonderful week in Europe, and I very much look forward to the next one! I welcome any feedback on this post (, and I hope to deliver another post early next week regarding the third stage of my trip!

- Ian Rowlands, 5 July 2022

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