Jana Hulová: What was Behind the Conference on Inter-American Studies?

29/03/2012 22:48

Photo: Katarína Koreňová


Perspectives talked to Jana Hulová, the main organizer of the Student Conference on Inter-American Studies. If you are curious where the idea came from, how she managed the organization and what response she received, you are on the right place to have your questions answered.


PP: Janka, first let me congratulate you on organizing such a successful conference, which featured a talk by a foreign speaker and attracted a number of sponsors as well as students. When and where was the idea of this conference originally conceived?

JH: The idea first came to my mind when I attended a summer school in Inter-American Studies organized by the University of Graz. I found the whole concept very interesting and attractive and I particularly liked the fact that I could use all the languages I know. In Graz, I met many amazing and educated people from prestigious universities, who were treating us as colleagues. When I returned home, I did not have any lofty ambitions at first. Yet I spoke about the idea with some teachers and they encouraged me and said, “Let’s give it a try. Why not?” First, I asked a few people if they would be interested and once a dozen had agreed to participate, we decided to venture forth. I think that nobody had an idea of what it would look like. Many things only became clear gradually as we were developing our ideas. The project did not begin to take shape until October 2011, when the planning team (Jana Hulová, Mário Kyseľ, Zuzana Roncová, Martina Bednáriková) held a first meeting. That is when we decided to make the conference a truly large-scale event and try to approach potential partners such as the Oxford Bookshop, the Portuguese Institute or the Polish Institute. 


PP: Where did you find support and who helped you prepare the conference?

JH: I could rely on a few close friends of mine as well as a university teacher in the United States and some teachers from the University of Graz, who were also very encouraging. Some teachers at our department, especially Drs. Ambrus and Otrísalová, were also very helpful. Their argument was that this was going to be the first event of its kind and people wouldn’t have anything to compare it to. Especially Dr. Ambrus was excited about the idea and told me that considering my enthusiasm, I would “definitely make it”.  His words later proved to be true.


PP: Was there any negative response in the beginning? Did anyone believe that you wouldn’t make it or that it was not worth trying?

JH: Of course, there were some classmates who told me that it might not be very interesting and tempting for students. They told me that it required extra work and that students were either lazy or too busy and did not have time for something like that.


PP: But then came the idea that each active participant would gain three extra credits... Who suggested that?

JH: It was Dr. Otrísalová who came up with that idea. She suggested that we should give the conference the status of an extracurricular activity. This was great because we were given a lot of space and on top of that, we were rewarded for our efforts.


PP: Do you think that people would have taken part in the conference if they had not received extra credits?

JH: In my opinion, they would definitely have participated anyway. Of course, it was motivating in a way but it wouldn’t have been a problem without the credits either.


PP: I personally appreciated that you were able to involve so many students and persuade them to do extra work. How did the speakers and the interpreters prepare for the conference?

JH: I think this is a very good question because there were some people who thought that our work only consisted of reading information on the Internet and that we did not know anything about our respective subjects. But the truth is that we divided the tasks right at the beginning and the interpreters closely co-operated with the speakers.


PP: How often did you hold meetings?

JH: In general, I met with each pair or at least the speakers once a month and they presented to me what they had done. In addition, the planning team gathered every week to talk about various issues, which included organizational details and problems with the speakers’ and interpreters’ preparation. All the speakers were constantly in touch with their supervisors, some of which were from abroad. In December we made a break so that everyone could finalise their presentations. By then, everyone had to have at least two pages of their papers done. The deadline for submitting the papers was January 16, 2012. Zuzana Roncová and I then checked all the presentations and handed them over to the interpreters who were supposed to translate them by the end of January. We had to put off the deadlines a little bit, but I think that in general, 95 percent of the students had their work ready on time. And that is also one of the reasons why the outcome was so successful: all the participants proved themselves hard-working and reliable.


PP: Were there any unexpected situations which influenced the course of the conference? Anything that went wrong or changed things for better?

JH: There were many situations that we had to solve very quickly. One of the unpleasant things was that one interpreter could not come and we had to find a substitute in a short time. But there were also many positive situations, especially when people came and offered their help. Mr. Pastorek from the Embassy of Canada contacted us and said he had heard about our initiative and offered his congratulations and help. Another positive thing was that the Oxford Bookshop team proposed to organize an accompanying event and came up with many ideas. We were also very pleased by the help offered by the Polish Institute, which sponsored the refreshment and the printing of posters and registration forms. I also felt great support from the teachers and students at our department. Most importantly, though, I had a wonderful team around me. When I made a decision, no one protested or had objections. They understood that the decisions were made after the discussion with all of them and they respected me although I was younger than some of them. One more thing that really surprised me was that the University of Graz took the event under its auspices, provided us with numerous materials and also sent a speaker at their own cost.


PP: Apropos, tell us more about how you managed to bring a foreign guest to the conference.

JH: It was thanks to some people from the University of Graz’s Center of Inter-American Studies whom I had befriended during the summer school, and to Professor Ulla Kriebernegg from that center, under whose guidance I had worked on an academic paper. I shared my idea about the conference with them and they showed complete enthusiasm. They had never heard of students organizing a conference on their own. Later they even let me know that they would like to help us and that they also wished to promote their center by sending out a speaker, Georg Schendl. He turned out to be really friendly: though I kept sending him e-mails with deadlines and comments, he never objected and in the end he admitted that it was right I wanted to be a good timekeeper.


PP: What did he say after the conference?

JH: He was surprised by the high quality and was pleased with how the students had received him. He said he was glad that we appreciated not only his own academic achievements but also academic endeavor in general, and that we did not only go to school to eat our lunch but to learn and be creative instead.  


PP: Did the conference fulfil your expectations and were you satisfied with the attendance?

JH: To be honest, I hadn’t expected anything. As far as the attendance is concerned, I was surprised by the number of people who turned out, especially for the first lecture held by Georg Schendl. During the conference there were many things I was not completely satisfied with, but I think that in general it ended up very well.


PP: What kind of response did you have from students and teachers? Did you also get negative feedback?

JH: I don’t want to talk about negative reactions because we decided to forget about them, as the criticism was not always constructive. Of course, some comments were constructive and we are thankful for them. For example, we have to work on stage fright. The speakers were under stress; as a result, many mistakes we made were not necessarily caused by our lack of knowledge, but rather because we got a bit frightened by the big audience. As for positive reactions, there were many; I was particularly pleased with the comment by our faculty’s dean who said that he was proud of his students. Drs. Huttová, Otrísalová and Ambrus came to see us at the library after the last presentation and said they had not expected the conference to be organized with such professionalism and that we had done a good job. I also received personal praise from one professor, who asked me after the conference how I felt and I replied, “Very proud of the conference team”. He told me something I had almost forgotten about, namely that I should also be proud of myself. That was when I decided to continue with the project and expand it even further. The University of Graz has already promised future cooperation and support.


PP: Does it mean that you have already been thinking about the next edition of the conference?

JH: Yes, we have been thinking about that. On Thursday evening, after the conference was over, we agreed not to do another one, but as early as Friday evening we started to think about the next edition. We also have one more project in mind, but that one is still in its infancy. Perhaps it might take place this autumn and then, in the spring 2013, the second edition of the conference might be held. 


PP: What would you do otherwise next year?

JH: I think that I would change the task distribution. The planning team would be bigger, consisting of at least five people, and everyone would be responsible for a different aspect: finance, promotion, communication with the speakers, etc. I would also change the length of presentations and would try to obtain more significant sponsorship to be able to arrange the equipment necessary for the interpretation into two languages. And there is one more thing we need to change next year: we have to enjoy the event more. Those six months of preparations were really stressful, but in retrospect I see it was so great to be surrounded by a community of people who share my academic interests.  We had so much fun indeed!


Zuzana Servanská



Date: 30/03/2012

By: Heidi Moertl

Subject: Congrats

Congratulations Jana on organizing such a fabulous conference! I heard lots of praise about it and I am glad that you are carrying Inter-American Studies further out onto the world!

Heidi Moertl
Center for Inter-American Studies
University of Graz

Date: 20/04/2012

By: Jana Hulova

Subject: Re: Congrats

Heidi! thank you! It was so successful also thanks to Graz! More about that in the Seggau Castle! Looking forward to seeing you!

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