Campus Highlight: The Liberal Herald at Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts

By Dagmar Kusa, Lecturer and Undergraduate Studies Coordinator, Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts

Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts (BISLA) has collaborated with the Bringing Theory to Practice (BTtoP) project since 2011, when we hosted our first workshop on democratic citizenship under the leadership of Don Harward, director of BTtoP. This workshop served as a spark for participating students; it motivated them to establish a student academic journal for undergraduate research. Since its founding in 2012, the Liberal Herald has organized four annual international conferences, bringing together students, faculty, and experts from across Europe and beyond. Now alumni, the founders are still engaged with the organization, involving current students as interns and volunteers in an ever-growing production.

The first two conferences focused on the principles of freedom and dignity in present societies. They took place at BISLA, with approximately twenty presenters showcasing their research at each event. Both resulted in publications—special issues of Kritika & Kontext, a peer-reviewed journal published at BISLA. Occurring during the peak of the 2015 refugee crisis, the third conference focused on questions about the future of politics in Central and Eastern Europe and explored new challenges and moral questions around citizenship and identity. This conference was cosponsored by the Open Society Foundation and several individual sponsors who supported awards for student essays.

Last August, the Liberal Herald joined forces with the Central European University’s (CEU) political science department to help organize a two-day undergraduate conference in Budapest, “The Challenge of the Refugee Crisis—Panacea or Pandemonium for Europe?” Prior to the conference, the Herald offered a series of workshops to help BISLA students develop their research focus and methods and prepare their work for submission; four of the twelve BISLA submissions were selected for inclusion in the conference. Undergraduate students from various parts of the world attended the two-day conference and examined the topic of migration from the perspectives of refugees, the state, urban planning, narrative construction, and international relations. Selected conference presentations were developed as papers and are awaiting publication in the CEU Political Science Journal.

This year, the Liberal Herald is focusing on the shifts in identities and perceptions of the Self and the Other in Third Wave democracies. Slovakia and its neighbors have transitioned from communism to democracy since the 1989 revolutions. At the same time, democratization has taken place in several countries of Latin America, East Asia, and South Africa. The conference, titled “(Dis)continuous Identities: Globalization, Trauma, and Reconciliation,” seeks to compare the phenomena related to these transitions, particularly questions about the presence of “the ghosts of the past” in the present political discourse and the mechanisms for addressing the past chosen by the transitioning regimes.

These countries are witnessing the rise of a new generation that is entering adulthood. The “Born Frees,” as they are commonly called in South Africa, were born after the fall of the oppressive regimes, and their generation is shaped by very different priorities and social contexts than those of their parents or grandparents. Not bogged down by learned helplessness stemming from the communist past, nor tied by loyalties to the former opposition struggle leaders or to new regimes that asked for patience with transition, the Born Frees are challenging their governments and asking for justice and transparency in governance. The Herald will host students and faculty from the Central European region and Germany, and will welcome a group from South Africa.

Throughout the first four years of the Liberal Herald’s existence, its founding group of students learned “on the go” how to organize a successful international student conference, which is the only event of its kind in this region. Until 2016, when the CEU started organizing conferences for undergraduate students, there were few opportunities for students to present their original research in front of an international audience. The Herald is also special because it brings experts and faculty into the conference, which is proving to be a great learning experience not only for the students but for the participating academics as well.

The Liberal Herald has grown in size and matured, and it is seeking to become a permanent year-round platform for undergraduate research. The small original seminar, which was funded by BTtoP, sparked and supported a confident student organization; the Liberal Herald is now training new cohorts of students each year and serves as a starting point where they can “cut their teeth” as they enter the world of academia.