Charles University saw numerous important changes over the last year-and-a-half, among them the relocation of student and employee services, CU Point, to Celetná 13 – a beautiful historic building that is a veritable pleasure to visit. It is a central hub for information services, including the CU Staff Welcome Centre, helping foreign researchers and academics with longer work stays.
The new hub opened in January 2020 but two months later, a new reality set in: the Czech Republic implemented its first lockdown because of Covid-19. New and even stricter measures were introduced again in October and then in January of this year. The Staff Welcome Centre’s Simona Teplá told me more about the centre’s agenda as well as the impact of the pandemic year.
“Probably our most important task is helping with visas and long-term research stays. A lot of documents are required and not all are easy to obtain, not least when scientists are already abroad and not currently in their home country. For example, we are corresponding with an Indian researcher who is based in Israel but his wife is in India. So it can be tricky. Then you need to look for accommodation, sometimes at university facilities. Often foreign employees come with their families and require help with their children getting enrolled at schools, finding a paediatrician, insurance, bank accounts and more. There are a lot of things that require our attention.”
As CU Point writes on its website, it is the go-to contact point for information and help at the Charles University, with staff answering thousands of emails and phone calls each year. According to CU Staff Welcome Centre data, the Czech Republic is a top destination when it comes to enquiries, with the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics, the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Education at Charles University garnering a lot of attention. The welcome centre is tasked with just that: welcoming. It helps foreign researchers and academics, many of them in the Czech Republic for the first time, gain their bearings and get off to a successful start. Last year, however, was more complex.
“Covid was a big unknown for all of us. During the first lockdown the borders were closed as well as Czech embassies abroad, so while scientists from abroad were selected for projects, they couldn’t work on them here. We worked to keep them informed, kept tabs on developments and any changes in restrictions. Gradually measures were lifted for visiting researchers and they were able to come to the Czech Republic. Nothing changed for us – our commitment was the same. The number of foreign academics or scientists at CU (not including from neighbouring Slovakia) is around 650.”
Sometimes working out how facilitate a work stay feels like unravelling a Gordian knot, but what is important is, as often as possible, to arrive at a positive result. On the lighter side, Simona Teplá says requests sometimes aren’t always about directions from the airport or the cost of living but quirkier inquires that are endearing. The centre does its best to accommodate incoming staff.
“One of our scientists requested whether she could live in an apartment where there were absolutely no cats. Not even anywhere within the vicinity, which was a little tricky. Or we had a researcher who needed a place with an oven because in his free time he did a lot of baking. Overall, we’ve had a lot of positive feedback and are now looking at making a little promo video about some of the people who made use of our service.”
The anthropologist John M. Coggeshall of Clemson University in South Carolina was a visiting fellow in 2019 and is a professor who greatly enjoyed his time in Prague and teaching CU students. Here’s what he told us in early 2020, as his stay in the capital wrapped up.
“I loved our time here and getting to know my colleagues, my students, the culture and the city. I would come back in a second!”
As of May 2021, the situation in the Czech Republic has continued to improve steadily and everyone is keeping their fingers crossed that things will get even better, with vaccinations quashing Covid numbers and allowing people to return to both school and work.
Simona Teplá once more:
“I am so looking forward to meeting people in person once again. I was so happy when our centre first opened but we did so only briefly because of the pandemic. Once visitors start to return, they will find us just inside the main door at Celetná 13.”
CU Point’s Staff Welcome Centre, which provides services in English and Czech: be sure to visit for the very latest information and developments, both in person and online. https://swc.cuni.cz/UKSWCEN-1.html