Because Learning Is Beautiful
Friday, February 22
I would call it an Artforum afternoon. There is an obligatory book resting at my side and snowflakes falling from the sky cover the window with a white layer that looks like a proof of heaven’s tenderness. The smell of coffee prevents me from falling asleep, which is very hard today as my day started at 4 a.m. in a Brussels apartment.
Today, I am not paying much attention to my book, though I am sure the book will forgive me. Too much has been going on in the last two weeks. My mind is too occupied by a myriad of impressions and ideas. They need to be processed, so I am sharing them by putting them down in words. And there is a lot to share. The question is where to start.
Friday, February 15 – Day One
The conference was to begin that day. My great team and I had spent hours and hours working hard to make it happen. And I don’t mean only the last week, although the last few days before the conference had been particularly challenging because there were a thousand and one things to do: to pick up our sponsors’ banners, to print the nametags, to order food for the speakers, etc. We had two busy days ahead of us and then several of us would head to Brussels for a few days to participate in an interpreting study visit organized by one of our instructors, Pavol Šveda. I wanted to be sure everybody would enjoy the conference even though it meant hard work.
I arrived at the faculty. All was quiet. Quiet and still. I went through the nametags again. The rest of the team arrived, and so did our instructor Lucia Otrísalová. It was she who had trusted and encouraged us during the whole process of preparation and organisation. Everybody knew exactly what to do, and they did it perfectly: setting up the conference room, the registration room and the plenary room; preparing coffee and hosting coffee breaks (so important!); and printing the final conference programme.
The International Student Conference on Inter-American Studies could start.
Just before the first speakers arrived, it had occurred to me that the event that we were going to host was unusual. We had been expecting the arrival of 17 speakers and 3 keynote speakers (Dr Otrísalová included) from 13 countries. It not only sounded like an international conference, it was one.
Inter-American studies do not focus exclusively on the USA although the word “American” is often associated only with this country. As a result, the speakers from Brazil, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands and many other countries were going to present papers in a wide variety of fields: economics, history, journalism, foreign policy, immigration policy, literary and film studies; and they were going to speak about places as geographically and culturally distant as Nicaragua or Bolivia. Native studies could not have been omitted and three students from our department, Jana Černíčková, Mária Hudáková and Martina Bednáriková, were to focus on the analysis of their current situation and rights.
I looked around. Everything was ready. Everybody, and myself in particular, was stressed. Student interpreters were studying their glossaries as they knew they were taking the risk of being evaluated by their teachers and judged by even stricter judges – their classmates. Nevertheless, they did not hesitate to gain the experience. And several students from our department took on an even greater risk by presenting the results of their research. I was so proud of all those students that committed to this little project – my brainchild.
It went like clockwork. The papers were of a high academic quality, the discussions afterwards taught us to face criticism and respond to unexpected inquisitive questions and accept the fact that we might be wrong, and our interpreters delivered professional performances.
After the first day dedicated to Canada, we needed a break. Thanks to the Office of the Embassy of Canada and the Polish Institute, we were able to host a wine and cheese party in the evening. Our department’s theatre troupe proved themselves to be supportive as they entertained our guests with a play and a singing dig.
Saturday, February 16 – Day Two
I had been looking forward to learning something new about French-US relations, the engagement of US banks in Latin America and the indigenous peoples in the Americas. And before I could realize it, the conference came to a close.
Every single detail was perfect. Everything worked just as it had been meant to, and I must say those students who worked with me could be running their own businesses – so good were their organisational skills. It was a learning experience very different from that in a classroom, and although it had taken up the entire winter term, it was worth it. We had had to deal with plenty of e-mails that had to be replied promptly; we had had to learn how to work in a team, delegate tasks, share duties, organize our time and work efficiently – especially during the examination period. And I think we had succeeded in this respect.
There was just one thing we had been wrong about. The interpreters need not have worried about being judged by their teachers or fellow students too harshly. There were only two interpreting instructors (to whom we are grateful) who came, put on headphones, listened to us interpreting and took notes to give us feedback so that we could become real interpreters. The speakers had no reason to be stressed either. Apart from the other speakers and the few teachers and students who stopped by, there was no one to ask questions.
As a result, two contradictory emotions were battling each other inside my head at the closing dinner: joy and disappointment. I am positive that most of the team were feeling the same. We knew how great the conference and all the work that had preceded was and how much we had learnt. We knew it was worth the effort. We were thankful to those students who had come by and to those instructors who had been willing to switch places with us and listen to what we had to say. What we did not understand was why such a great opportunity to learn something new, to learn something not covered in any of our courses, had been overlooked by most of our classmates and instructors.
Sunday, February 17
As I got on the bus to Brussels at Sunday lunchtime, I was not sure what the point of our hard work had been. My mind was too tired to even try to figure it out. Though exhausted from the previous days and weeks of work, my four classmates and I got down to studying the materials for the meetings that we were supposed to interpret at in Brussels. I had grabbed only two hours of sleep by the time we arrived at 5:40 a.m. Another early morning. At least this time there were a cup of Belgian coffee and a croissant to refreshen me.
Three days with professional interpreters in genuine well-equipped interpreting booths was something none of us had dared dream of. But it was what we experienced – a real learning experience with professionals. We watched them work, gaining motivation to become as good as they are.
The Slovak interpreting booth members were incredibly nice to us and taught us more than we could have imagined during the short visit. They not only gave us feedback on our interpreting skills but shared their experience and stories over lunch, during breaks and, one evening, even over mugs of Belgium beer. We can be nothing but thankful to Pavol Šveda for providing us with this opportunity. It was well worth the time, the effort and the money.
Friday, February 22
The aroma of my Artforum coffee again tickles my senses. I smile. I have to. I know now what I was trying to figure out a week ago as I got on that bus to Brussels. I can see the point of the conference and not getting enough sleep. I can see the point of organising something valuable, getting involved and risking that these academic or extracurricular activities won’t work out as one has imagined. I know the classmates and instructors who worked on the conference and/or went to Brussels sense that too: events like these teach us who we are, how strong we are and how far we can go. By challenging our knowledge, whether it be by preparing a paper to present, interpreting six hours a day or listening to student papers, we learn who we can be and what we can achieve. Learning this way is not easy, but it makes so much sense. Because learning is beautiful.
Photos: Katarína Koreňová (1-4), Martina Bednáriková (5), Jana Hulová (6-7)
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