YOUR JOURNEY AROUND THE WORLD BEGINS IN TARTU! – HANNAH (GERMANY)
When looking back at my time as a student at the University of Tartu, the biggest impression were the many study trips that I participated in. They helped me to better understand the topics I studied in class when doing the course readings and attending lectures and seminars. I benefitted a lot from the numerous activities organized by my faculty (the Skytte Institute for political studies): a day trip to Tallinn, attending the session of the Estonian parliament discussing Estonian foreign policy, hosting the Tartu Model United Nations simulation seminar, or a variety of winter and summer schools and conferences. So let me tell you a bit more about three of those trips, which I undertook during my time as a UT student and share with you what I learned and how they helped me grow.
Journey 1. Winter school in Pyatigorsk, North Caucasus, Russia (March 2016)
After managing the initial hurdles like receiving a visa (we got it one day before the trip), one fellow student and I left early in the morning from Tartu to St. Petersburg and after a day of sightseeing and catching up with friends, we continued by plane to Mineralnye Vody where we got picked up by the organizers and were accompanied to our accommodation in Pyatigorsk. The winter school was organized by the North Caucasus Federal University and the Jean Monnet network consortium and dealt with the topic of the future of civil society in the Caucasus region.
The contrast of Pyatigorsk to shiny St. Petersburg was striking and I would not describe the city as such as particularly charming but the abandoned fairground next to our hotel still held a strangely intriguing appeal. Moreover, being surrounded by actual mountains was a welcoming change of scenery. Overall, the welcome was warm and the other participants (mainly coming from Russia) made sure we had an unforgettable week. Beyond discussing important questions such as what makes a country a democracy, the social activities after class left no time to get bored. Highlights certainly were the trip to Kislovodsk, a spa city known for its strong links to Russian poet Lermontov, and the Caucasian dance classes we were persuaded to participate in – very much to the entertainment of the other hotel guests. Despite some challenges such as language barriers, we enjoyed a whole week of lively exchanges of opinion and all got to know each other’s cultures a bit better. Once again I learned that keeping an open mind is paramount and I am grateful to having engaged with people with such a different take on the world. After one week of laughing and learning in Pyatigorsk (and squeezing in as many bags of Alenka chocolate into our suitcases as possible), it was time to say our goodbyes and head back to Tartu.
The friendly young man who sat next to me on the plane to Mineralnye Vody came to my mind again. Even one year later I still remember how he, after only five minutes of talking to me, had offered to host me at his house to meet his wife and kids and to lend me his car to discover more of the region he calls home: “We are very nice people here [in the North Caucasus] – one big family” he assured me, then leaning over adding in a more serious tone, “as long as you don’t mess with us”. The North Caucasus – complex and a bit rough around the edges.
Journey 2. Practical Study Field Trip to Be’er Scheva, Israel (April 2016)
This second trip took place only around two weeks after I had returned from Pyatigorsk and was organized by one of my professors who once a year takes some of his IRRS students (one more reason to opt for this program at the UT!) to a conflict region on a practical study field trip. This is due to the fact that, while reading about a complex situation such as protracted conflict is definitely helpful, truly grasping the complexities at hand becomes so much more manageable after witnessing what happens on the ground with your own eyes.
While I had never considered going to Israel before, I was fascinated from the first moment of arriving at Tel Aviv airport. Our host university was the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev located in Be’er Scheva in the South of the country and the engaging seminars held every day were complemented by exciting excursions to Jerusalem, the Bedouin communities of the Negev, the Estonian embassy in Tel Aviv, and the border fence to the West Bank. Needless to say, the experiences were eye-opening and left me with the chill of excitement to having seen some of the things in real life which I had only been able to read about before in class. If you happen to be interested to read more about the overall trip in detail, check out the poignant UT blog post of my coursemate Andrew who has written about our trip – it’s worth it: http://blog.ut.ee/doing-practical-fieldwork-in-conflict-areas-israel/!
As a German, I was also surprised how positive the attitude of the people I talked to was towards my country which made the trip all the more valuable for me on a personal level and I am very thankful for having been offered the unique opportunity to participate in a trip like this.
Journey 3. Internship and MA Thesis Field Research Trip, Bogotá, Colombia (March 2017)
While writing this blog entry, my latest trip to a faraway place has only just ended a few days ago. This time, I went all by myself; the destination was Bogotá the capital of Colombia. With the support of the Archimedes Foundation and the European Regional Fund, the purpose of my trip was to do an internship with the women’s rights organization Casa de la Mujer for one month while also conducting field research for my MA thesis on the topic of the armed conflict in Colombia and the country’s current peace process.
It was my second trip to Colombia and it didn’t take me long to remember why I had liked it this much the first time and I certainly could fill several pages describing the breathtaking experiences I made. Some of these experiences included attending a forum held in the Congress in Bogotá on the role women play in the peace process, a seminar on German and Colombian memory politics as well as joining the march taking place in the central square of Bogotá to mark international women’s day on March 8th. Moreover, it was nice to be considered being tall for a change – something that would never happen to me in Estonia.
While Colombians are genuinely lovely and open-hearted people, the decades of violence have taken their toll on the country and being part of a social movement and advocating for human rights is dangerous up to the point that it can cost you your life. Being granted the opportunity to talk to people about their daily work of making their country a safer and more peaceful place to live in for everyone, extends beyond merely collecting field notes for my thesis but left me speechless and allowed me to appreciate Tartu’s coziness even more.
To sum up
Knowledge comes in all forms and shapes. Being a student at Tartu University has provided me with various opportunities to grow both personally and academically as it does not necessarily take a whole semester abroad to change the way you look at life or at your usual environment. Sometimes a month or even a week is already sufficient to introduce you to a new culture and way of thinking; leaving you amazed with the thirst to explore more. Therefore I would like to encourage all of you to seize these opportunities if they come your way – they’re worth it!