It was back in 2013. An undergrad student from Paris, I had freshly landed in Prague to attend a two-week summer course on the political and economic development of Central European countries since 1990. It was the first time I ever set foot in the Czech Republic. Flash forward. I’m still living in the Czech capital, promoting, at my own humble level, mutual understanding between “East” and “West” Europeans. Little did I know that the issues we had broached during this two-week course would play such an important role in my future professional endeavours.
Thinking about topics to cover for the newly-created Kafkadesk website, I instantly thought of Petra Baštová, coordinator of this summer program. As it turned out, she was due to move out of Prague in a few weeks and pass the torch to her successor in order to dedicate her time to her upcoming baby. “It must be fate”, I thought, while quickly arranging a meeting.
Petra, it’s great to see you again! First, let me to be a little nosy: how did you end up (and for so many years!) coordinating this summer program?
Growing up in the small town of Pelhřimov, I could never have anticipated this turn of events. But looking back at these years, I can now clearly see the common thread. I’ve always been interested in history, geography and German culture and language, which was, back at the beginning of the 1990’s, the main foreign language Czech students learned, even more than English. Charles University’s Area studies were therefore a perfect choice for my bachelor, which I then pursued by specializing in German and Austrian studies. After studying one semester at Bonn University, I wrote my PhD thesis on German cultural diplomacy in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It was just published by the way.
Was it at that time that you took charge of this program?
Yes, in 2010, I started handling these summer & spring universities, organized by Charles University’s Faculty of Social Sciences / Institute of International Studies, where I also teach. It was very new and had only been launched one or two years before. The main idea, structure and purpose of the program were already set, but everything was still to be done: polishing it, taking care of the practical details, improving it year after year based on the feedback, constantly enriching it. I did that for eight years, and it was absolutely incredible.
Can you give us a general idea of this program?
Every year, we organize a spring (12 days in April) and summer (15 days in September) university meant for international students – around 30 per program. The fact that we organize two of them every year is important: first, we’re among the only ones to do so here; second, it enables us to constantly adapt the content and nature of the courses to our students’ needs or interests. These programs comprise classes, workshops, debates, visits, outings, excursions and, of course, some free time! Our success is based on two main factors: the quality of the courses, with renowned Charles University teachers coming in, as well as speakers from ministries, think-tanks or NGO’s; but also the general setting of the program, in one of Central Europe’s oldest and most reputable universities and one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.
What kind of topics do you cover?
The summer programs usually cover broad topics linked to European affairs and international politics, while our spring universities focus on more specific themes (for example, on Central European issues). This way, we can attract students from very different horizons and discuss other topics more in detail. For instance, this year’s summer university is entitled “Project Europe at a Crossroads: Building up open structures or breaking down into local identities?”. As you can guess, we’ll address a wide range of topics such as Brexit, populism, multi-speed Europe, relations with Russia, etc. Our spring university (which ended last week) was on “Understanding Europe in an Age of Uncertainty”.
Who can apply?
Anyone who is really interested in the course topic! Well, almost. There are two basic requirements: a very good command of English (at least B2 level) and enrollment in a university (or other academic programs / recent graduation).
I’m guessing your attendees are mostly European students in politics or international affairs?
Naturally, most of our students have a background in European affairs, international relations or related fields of study. But in fact, they come from very different domains. Just one example: we accepted, for a spring program on migration, a medicine student who worked on the correlation between migration movements and public health issues. They also come from all over the world. Our most consistent applicants usually come from Germany, Switzerland, France, Spain or the U.K., but we also host students from the Middle-East, Asia or America! That’s what makes it so interesting for us… and challenging! Our expectations will, of course, vary whether we’re grading a Hungarian PhD student in Central European studies or a freshman in international relations from Latin America.
How do you select them?
Our selection process is highly individualized. My goal is to make sure that the program will be useful for all our students, both on the academic and personal levels. Every program is unique, either in its content or attendees, and I’m the one responsible of creating the best possible “mix”. That’s why I’m not shy to tell a student when I think he or she won’t be a good fit, and the reasons can be extremely varied: I received several applications of people who were obviously over-qualified for instance, and it’s my job to tell them so that they don’t end up disappointed or frustrated.
What kind of difficulties did you encounter?
Finding the best formula for these two weeks took several years of try-outs, failures and improvements, but that’s a normal part of the job. Over the years, we’ve had to adapt, experiment, cut some sequences, add new ones, change again, etc., in order to plan the most informative, challenging, enriching and enjoyable programs.
Could you give us some examples?
Well, for instance, we used to organize some movie screenings to introduce them to Czech and Central European cinema. But we were surprised to realize that many students were not really interested in it. Czech movies are probably relatively easily available to them also in their home countries, so they preferred exploring Prague instead of watching a movie. Which makes complete sense of course, but that’s typically the kind of things you need to try out to realize they don’t work. Other “faux-pas” can be more practical. One of the week-end outings we had originally planned was a day-trip to Kutná Hora.
That’s funny. One of our writers recently wrote an article about Kutná Hora.
Well, as it turns out, it was way too ambitious. Have you ever tried rounding-up 30 students at 8 am on a Saturday morning after their first night out in Prague? Well, don’t try, it can’t be done! So we opted for a closer and more convenient place: Konopiště castle, located south of Prague, which also gives us the opportunity to have a walk in the Bohemian countryside.
I’m guessing it can be hard to handle such a diverse group of students.
You bet! Having a debate on territorial sovereignty when you have students from Ukraine and Russia, Azerbaidjan and Armenia or Palestine and Israel in the classroom is not the easiest feat ever. Same thing if you’re talking about the Eurozone with Greeks and Germans. But it’s my job to select open-minded people and our lecturers and tutors know how to moderate the discussions. Hearing first-hand accounts of people’s opinions is also what makes it all the more interesting. Still, strange situations can occur. Let me give you one example: being sarcastic about our country, co-citizens or history is one of our trademarks, as Czechs. We’re used to making fun of ourselves. I don’t know, you could say it’s our coping strategy. But when we apply this to other countries, people can be offended. They can be more sensitive about that kind of thing and I’ve learned, over the years, which topics should be approached as delicately and carefully as possible. If our spring and summer programs can be compared to a microcosm of the world and international community, we could say, in all modesty, that we’re fostering mutual understanding between nations. That’s what I like about my job.
After eight years, do you recall one particularly memorable experience?
There are so many of them! Two years ago, we worked on the topic of migration. You have to remember that it was one of the hottest and most controversial issues already, and that we were at the height of the migrants’ crisis. A vast majority of our students did not understand the Czech Republic’s unwillingness to accept a higher number of refugees. This paved the way to heated debates between our class and the speaker, a Czech Interior Ministry official. In the end, I think this discussion enabled everyone to get a better understanding of the opposite side’s views. Our students understood that, contrary to countries like Germany or France where immigration is deeply embedded in their history and society, the Czech Republic is not used to it. The greatest multi-ethnic experience we’ve had dates back to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire! Today, our country has very few foreigners, and even fewer non-European foreigners (apart from the Vietnamese community, which is a very specific case). My point here is not to personally weigh in on that issue, but to illustrate how useful a constructive discussion taking into account opinions from such a diverse group of students can be.
Any regrets or advice for your successor?
My main regret is not having spent enough time just loosely talking with the students during the programs. It’s hectic for us, coordinators: we have so many things to do, plan, organize, anticipate! I wish I was more relaxed and enjoyed the chats with students even more. And my advice to my successor, Anežka: enjoy as much as possible, as long as you’re young enough to relate to students in their early 20’s!
To know more about these programs, you can visit:
Facebook: Spring and Summer Universities Prague