Not only will they be the first class to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from the Value Studies programme in June 2012, but they are students who have played a decisive part in shaping ECLA’s academic culture. The present article will deal with the personal, individual—both unique and shared—experiences of three seniors, who talked to me about how they came to be part of the programme, what changes they underwent while students, and how they see their future after ECLA.
I will share with you the stories of Eugen Russo (Romania), Tuvshinzaya Gantulga (Mongolia), and Maria Cristina Zavala (Nicaragua).
Eugen, Maria Cristina didn’t have a clear idea of what they wanted to study before they came to ECLA, but they all had previous experience. Eugen studied philosophy in Romania; Maria Cristina studied medicine in Nicaragua, and Tuvshin economics and political science at the American University in Bulgaria.
Eugen found out about ECLA through word of mouth; from friends. He came to ECLA because it provided a different kind of philosophical education, one that he could not find in his home country. His choice to come and stay has made all the difference. For him this kind of education gives one the opportunity to develop outside of an institutional framework.
It is an education that “just happens” and is by no means perfect like “the places that are set up and function according to a model,” but in its very imperfections it promotes great personal transformations. The nature of education, according to Eugen, is not to give people what they want, but rather a matter of willingness to learn not merely intellectually, but experientially. “How one treats this place has to do with one’s own attitude towards life in general.”
Tuvshin took and still takes his education at ECLA as a challenge. While he was still studying at AUBG, he took a class in philosophy and was told by a professor there that he should try the summer program at ECLA.
He decided to stay after that summer, even though he found the intense immersion in philosophy somewhat difficult, because it undermined, in a sense, his confidence in his own knowledge by constantly questioning it. He says that he often leaves class feeling that he doesn’t know anything, but he still learns every day. He faces this challenge to be willing to learn–rather than receiving some ‘ready-made’ package of knowledge—constantly.
Maria Cristina was also left utterly unsecure about her knowledge when she first came to ECLA for the Academic Year programme. Having started a medical education back at home, the philosophical texts that she read at ECLA were something absolutely different. She steadily acquired a fragmented picture, which she could not integrate into a coherent whole, for she had no idea about philosophical movements and their historical or intellectual background.
After the year was over and she went back to Nicaragua, Maria Cristina could not exactly tell what she had learned. Only after a year of working and an everyday ordinary-lifestyle could she define what kind of education she received. She decided to come back when ECLA first offered the BA in Value Studies because she saw this education as an opportunity to develop as an individual; to better herself. She believes that the ECLA community promotes the understanding that what is necessary is not only an improvement in academic, but also in human terms. “In order to be a better philosopher, doctor, lawyer one needs to be a better individual.”
Maria Cristina’s understanding of personal development was brought out by her experience of Nicaraguan and European culture. She decided to focus on becoming a better individual because she believes that society is composed of individuals, whose relationship is that of individual-to-individual, rather than that of a daughter-to-mother, son-to-father, wife-to-husband, etc., the traditional understanding predominant in Nicaraguan society.
This essential shift of perspective was promoted by the education she received at ECLA. She is interested in education and pedagogy and wishes to continue her studies in that direction. For now, however, she has decided to focus on her final year and not distract herself with preparation for the future. “I think I will take a year off after I graduate, because I want to devote my time to being here now, rather than look for options for my future education while I am still here and learning.”
Tuvshin contends that what he finds different about an ECLA’s education is that it teaches you how to express how you feel about a subject and not simply argue against or in favor of its aspects: “When you write an essay here, ultimately the question is not how you argue, but how you feel.” He plans to go back to Mongolia and seek a job in public service or in the government, because Western Europe seems “too comfortable” to him and he wants a challenge. He believes that he will find it in a “developing country like Mongolia, for it’s more risky and adventurous.”
Eugen finds himself greatly transformed since the first time he set foot in ECLA. “It’s hard to think what stayed the same, but I have a much better perspective on things. I am much better prepared to handle hardships. I am stronger.” He said that before he took on the ‘challenge’ of ECLA, he felt as though he had missed out on many things, and so when he came he was, in some senses, forced to learn at a very fast pace.
“It’s supposed to be in a certain way overwhelming,” he continued, but “one is able to see oneself in a different light here and do things that one could have never done before”. At the same time, “we learn our limits and what we are.” When I ask him about the future, he asserts that there are many things over which he doesn’t have power, but he is more confident that he can deal with the ones that do depend on his volition. Finally, he says that even if his dream seems impossible, he has learned how to face the impossible and still believe in it. He has hope, he says, “this place has hope.”
Maria Androushko (1st year BA, Bulgaria)