Ruth Förster’s Vision

Ruth Förster is in San Francisco to study leadership training, but she’s finding life and culture just as rewarding.

Förster is the Program Manager for the interdisciplinary Master of Advanced Studies in Work and Health at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich). The program is run out of the department of management and technology (MTEC) and is collaboration between ETH Zurich and the University of Lausanne. Förster, who holds a doctoral degree in environmental engineering from ETH Zurich is spending three months at swissnex San Francisco to gain insights into how other universities are training tomorrow’s leaders in sustainable development.

Förster is responsible for her program’s design, curriculum development, lecturer selection, and administration. The students she works with are generally experienced in the workforce and are continuing their education, having already earned bachelor or master level degrees in engineering, medicine, psychology, or natural sciences. They typically go on to careers at public or federal institutions or in industry working in occupational health and safety.

During Förster’s sabbatical, which is partially funded by ETH Zurich but also involves her own independent research, she is exploring how other programs teach leadership skills, such as how to work on interdisciplinary teams to solve complex problems, in particular issues of sustainability and the environment.

“I’d like to find out which [skills] and qualities are essential in complex problem-solving with different disciplines,” she says. “What are the cross-cutting competencies related to working together and what is the best way to teach those?”

To do this, she’s screening programs that teach leadership and sustainability, such as the Presidio Graduate School, University of California Berkeley, Gaia University, Naropa University, Arizona State University, and others. She plans to utilize the swissnex San Francisco network to help connect and bring insights back to her own program in Switzerland.

In addition, Förster is conducting independent research on these topics and plans to submit her findings for publication to an academic journal and is exploring the possibility of initiating a project at ETH Zurich for leadership training in sustainability in the context of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014) program.

Why swissnex San Francisco? Förster already knew about swissnex and its ties to the Swiss State Secretariat for Education and Research (SER). While on holiday on the West Coast in 2010 she got in touch with swissnex San Francisco director Christian Simm, who mentioned the sabbatical opportunity. The San Francisco office was a good fit, she says, as several leadership programs related to sustainability are located here.

“I like the networking [swissnex San Francisco] is doing here. You have a hub, resources, people working in university relations. For me, it was an incentive to be in this environment with contacts.”

Nature is a recurring theme in Förster’s life. She loves mountaineering and is training in Switzerland and in the US while here to become a Vision Quest guide. She’s definitely not a woman to sit still. She even attends class once a week with postmodern dancer Anna Halprin in her Mountain Home Studio.

 “I’m trying to get my nose into different cultural activities,” says Förster, who is living in the Mission District of San Francisco and recently enjoyed the Day of the Dead festivities there and toured the neighborhood’s famed murals. She even started making sourdough bread in her kitchen. “The starter has been growing for a week. Tonight is the first one!”