An Interview With Susan Schärli by Marianna Pogosyan

I met Susan Schärli on one early summer Saturday, over a cup of morning tea, to talk about culture. Culture on its own is a theme as vast as the oceans themselves. But for Susan and me, and for everyone else who shares their heart with more than one home, a chat about culture can quickly turn into a philosophical investigation of identity, self-concept, and all else that is within culture’s encompassing reach.

As I was sipping my tea and listening to Susan talk about the fascinating marriage of her cultures with her life and work in her soft-spoken English and an unrelenting smile playing on her lips, I got the feeling that I had more in common with her than SIETAR Switzerland, a TCK upbringing, husbands who are from different cultural backgrounds than us, and being mothers to five-year-olds.

What I had in common with Susan was the silent, unspoken understanding of belonging to the same tribe. The tribe, that is full of members whose eyes kindle with sparks of Wanderlust and who know first-hand the meaning of empathy from having seen, tasted, and experienced different cultures.

I promised Susan that our interview wouldn’t take longer than half an hour. But it took much longer than that. I blame it all on her – she was too interesting to talk to. Besides, when you meet someone from your tribe, half an hour will fly faster than it takes you to finish a cup of tea.

We started our conversation with a question that might sound straightforward to many, but in fact, it’s anything but simple to answer for someone like Susan.

“Sometimes, Where are you from? is one of the hardest questions to answer,” Susan says with a laugh. “The answer will depend on the context in which it’s being asked, and who is asking.”
She gave me the long answer, which I would have done as well if I knew I was talking to someone from my tribe.

Susan was born in Australia to a Dutch mother and a Chinese father. She lived in the Netherlands for 12 years, and then in Belgium. Later, she moved back to Australia to study nursing, which is where she met her Swiss husband. She summarized the experience of having lived in four countries and having been educated in five as being a mixture of different possibilities. Depending on the context, she feels that a different part of her cultural mélange comes forth. She is fluent in Dutch, English, German, French and is planning on learning Chinese soon. Currently, her home is in Switzerland, where she has been living for 15 years with her husband and two children.

“It’s the longest period I have ever lived in any country!” she exclaims with a mixture of pride and astonishment.

When it was time to choose a profession, Susan’s choice laid between three disciplines: anthropology, psychology and nursing.

“I chose nursing, because I wanted a job that was relationship-based, that would allow me to be with people, to really get to know them, and of course, to travel around the world,” she says.

These days Susan wears many hats at her job as Coordinator of International Relations at the Institute of Nursing, Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW): she is in charge of the nursing networks, staff-development, communication of international activities, student and staff exchange and international curriculum development. As part of the international curriculum development she teaches intercultural communication to staff and Bachelor and Master of Advanced Studies students.

“If you like people and if you like traveling, nursing is a good job for you. There are lots of opportunities as a nurse, since there is a shortage of nurses all around the world,” she says sounding like a true ambassador to her profession.

But besides attending to the day-to-day demands of her job, perhaps the biggest feat of her professional accomplishments involves being a bridge between worlds, a facilitator between cultures, a translator of psycholinguistic communication between people with different cultural backgrounds. As is usually the case with matters of the heart, passion is capable of bringing about change. And with Susan, the changes that she has been bringing forth have recently taken on tangible results.

Thanks to Susan’s efforts to raise intercultural awareness and to create opportunities for students through her international curriculum, 18 nurses were able to come from abroad to study in Winterthur this year.

“We haven’t been able to catch up with globalization,” Susan says. “We need to develop the skills to deal with the consequences of globalization. This is especially true in Switzerland where 22.8% of the population is foreign, 18.1% of the patients are non-nationals (Schweizerische Gesundheitsobservatorium, 2012) and 24.4 % of employees in the health sector are non-nationals (Bundesamt fuer Statistik, 2012).

There is a diverse patient group, but the people who are caring for them may not have acquired the skills necessary to be able to work with people from different cultures. The need for development of cross-cultural skills appears to be urgent in the healthcare field. The Federal Office of Public Health in Switzerland states that one of the inadequacies of the Swiss healthcare system is the qualified staff’s “lack of transcultural skills and inadequate sensitization to the specific health problems of the migrant population” (p. 17).

In addition, the research from Casillas et al. (2014) on cultural competencies of health care providers in Swiss hospitals supports the need for improvement of cultural competency among health care providers.

The lack of cross-cultural competencies in Swiss hospitals is an issue in Switzerland and Susan wants to research this phenomenon in her Master’s thesis at the Intercultural Communication Institute and the University of the Pacific.

“So how do we get from an ethno-centric state to a ethno-relative state? What is the gap and how to fill it?” I ask.

“It depends on the stage of development where the person is at,” Susan explains referring to Milton Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity on how to view cultural differences. “Becoming ethno-relative is all about accepting differences and seeing that their culture is just as valuable as the other. You need to talk to both sides and when the translation works well, people move forward. That’s when they understand that we all behave according to our own cultural programs. It’s all about being a bridge and helping them to see that.”

Being a bridge is something Susan had experienced very recently. She shared a story that illustrates a true example of putting her theoretical knowledge into practice to wonderful results. The story involved a Serbian student nurse who Susan had invited to the hospital for a few days for observation purposes. Due to various cultural factors, a disconnect happened between the student and the Swiss staff at the hospital, along with a breakdown in communication. The Serbian student was almost sent back home. That was when Susan stepped in. She talked to both the nurse and the Swiss staff separately, asking questions, explaining differences, facilitating a dialogue, being a cross-cultural bridge. A few days later, she got another email from the Swiss staff.

“They said that despite the initial hardships, the experience had been extremely enriching for everyone,” Susan says with a proud smile. “And they are most happy to take on another international student next year.”
I asked her if she misses her job of being a nurse.
“I miss my patients, but now I have my students,” she says with a warm chuckle.

When it was time for my final question, I chose one that I myself in my own intercultural journey have long pondered about.
“Do you think people are more different or the same?” I ask.
She thought for a while.
“We are more different,” she finally says. “And we have that in common.”

I realized that this was a question, just like the first one that had started our interview, that didn’t have a straightforward answer. We agreed on reopening the case of the influences of culture on the human psyche over a bottle of wine. After all, most matters of the heart pair better with wine than mint tea.

Casillas, A., Paroz, S., Green, A.R., Wolff, H., Weber, O., Faucherre, F., Ninane, F., & Bodenmann, P. (2014). Cultural competency of health-care providers in a Swiss University Hospital: self-assessed cross-cultural skillfulness in a cross-sectional study. BMC Medical Education 2014, 14 (19), 1-8. doi: 10.1186/1472-6920-14-19

Bundesamt für Statistik [Federal Buro of Statistics]. (2012). Gesundheitsstatistik [Health Statistics 2012]. Retrieved from Statistik Schweiz – Publikationen

Schweizerisches Gesundheitsobservatorium. [Swiss Health Observatory] (2012). Migrationsbevölkerung und Gesundheit – Analyse der Hospitalisierungen [Migrationpopulation and health – Analysis of Hospitalizations]. Retrieved from Obsan – Alle Publikationen

Federal Office Public Health. (2008). Migration und Gesundheit. Kurzfassung der Bundesstrategie Phase II 2008-2013 [Migration and Health. Short summary of the Federal Strategy Phase II 2008-2013]. Bern: Federal Office Public Health.

Susan Schärli is the Coordinator for International Relations at the Institute of Nursing, Zurich University of Applied Sciences. She has almost completed the Master of Arts in Intercultural Relations at the Intercultural Communication Institute / University of the Pacific. She is a certified administrator of the Intercultural Development Inventory and the Global Competencies Inventory.


Marianna Pogosyan, PhD is a consultant for international executives and their families for all matters of cultural and psychological adaptation to a life far from home. She has lived in Tokyo longer than any other city in the world, where she also wrote her doctoral dissertation in cross-cultural psychology.

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