By students, with students, for students

15 October 2018

In November 2018, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) will be welcoming the first  International Students' Conference (ICON). Speakers from all over the world will come together to discuss topics and issues in and around gender, migration and markets, ethics, literature, and a great deal more under the title "Bounds of Humanity". The event will mark the start of a regular series of study conferences at JGU.

The call for papers was the initial acid test for the coming conference. "We really could not tell who would contact us beforehand – or whether anyone would get in touch at all,” says Claudio Palmieri. But then proposals for topics came in from Turkey and Morocco, India and Africa. In the end, there were around 50 abstracts that the team was able to choose from. "We were so relieved. Now we will even have a presentation from Japan."

ICON, the International Students' Conference Mainz, will establish a tradition at JGU. The conference on November 2 and 3, 2018 will be the first of three conferences scheduled to take place during the Studium generale project entitled Interdisciplinary International Study Conference. This project is part of the university-wide LOB ("Teach, Organize, Advise") program of JGU in the second funding round of the Teaching Quality Pact with the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Since the beginning of 2017, project assistant Dr. Daniel Schmicking has been creating the necessary infrastructure and supporting students in all phases of planning and implementation of the conference.

Pioneering project in international student collaboration

Among the all the preliminary work necessary to prepare for the project was a survey of students. "We undertook this survey together with the JGU Center for Quality Assurance and Development identifying, among other things, the specific topics that students want to see dealt with at this type of conference and how their own involvement in this kind of project might look," Schmicking explains. "On this basis, we then advertised and recruited for the project and clarified the details, i.e., whether participation can be recognized as an internship and thus ECTS credits can be awarded. Several disciplines gave their approval really quickly." Every semester, Schmicking also offers a tailored bilingual course. Here, students used a simulation scenario to develop the topics of the conference, formulate the call for papers and much more.

The group of students that will be responsible for setting up ICON came together during the 2017/2018 winter semester under the auspices of Studium generale. "I want to be part of the first conference of its kind at JGU," says Palmieri. "I like the idea of doing pioneering work here, that I can start something and really shape it, something that could be of lasting significance."

Francisca Ribeiro came to JGU as a visiting student from Portugal. She originally wanted to go back home this summer, but changed her plans because of the conference, and is now part of the team thanks to an ERASMUS internship. "ICON gives me the opportunity to interact with people from other countries. I didn't want to miss out on that," she explains. Fiona Sinkel sees things the same way: "I was looking to get involved in something meaningful. The international atmosphere of ICON was something that appealed to me immediately."

Students as event managers

In fact, ICON is expected to make an important contribution to the internationalization of JGU, which is the main aim of the second phase of the LOB project. "It is specifically about internationalization 'at home'," Schmicking explains. "We hope that our JGU students will have the opportunity to meet many fellow students from other cultures here on their doorstep in Mainz." And this is already indeed very much the case in the project group, which now extends to 17 members: Students from Turkey, the Ukraine, Croatia and other countries are involved. They speak English and German amongst themselves, switching easily between the two languages. The actual conference will be held entirely in English.

The team also reflects a certain diversity of subject areas: Sinkel is studying Education, Palmieri German Philology, and Ribeiro Theater Studies. "The main subjects represented are the humanities and cultural studies, but also disciplines such as law. Unfortunately, we do not yet have anybody from the natural sciences," reveals Schmicking. "However, this is exactly what could well become our strength. There are already larger student conferences held by the Life Sciences, Mathematics, and Computer Science – hence we could fill a gap with our subject focus."

Whether it's poster advertising, room booking, fundraising, or catering – the ICON team is literally taking care of every single aspect of the coming conference. The students try on the roles of event manager, marketer, and program creator. They even came up with the title International Students' Conference Mainz themselves, and only brought in professional support for the associated logo that now decorates the flyers and other media.

A melting pot of ideas

"We handed out flyers and recruited for the conference all over the Gutenberg Campus," says Sinkel. "Initially we needed to explain what we were doing, but now everybody at JGU knows what ICON means." The LOB project and the Center for Audiovisual Production are providing support to the conference, as is the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. "Nevertheless, we still need more sponsors," points out Ribeiro. "But this isn't easy." A visit to the General Students' Committee (AStA) was successful, but enquiries at banks proved less fruitful. "We could still use more supporters. But we will also try to raise something from a lottery and from waffle and cake sales."

Naturally the group spent a long time discussing what the topic of their first conference should be and there are various possible interpretations of the title "Bounds of Humanity".  They can be seen as being relevant to borders, but also about the ways that mankind and humanity are shackled. "We wanted to have something that would combine as many fields and specialties as possible," adds Palmieri. "Our intention is to create an interdisciplinary melting pot of ideas, free from personal or subject-related preferences." To achieve this aim, as many varied contributions as possible are needed, and following the successful call for papers, these are now actually available.

"We were even able to take our pick of the submissions," Palmieri is happy to disclose. The abstracts for the proposed talks were passed around the group, as everyone was involved in putting the program together. There will now be 18 presentations. "The topic of gender is strongly represented," points out Sinkel, "as is migration." Gambling addiction, transsexuality, and the role of the media are covered. Presentations on subjects such as "Men read literature, women read women's books" and "The meaning of art and the absurdity of life" sound very interesting. Almost all contributions for ICON come from students, with the only exception being the three keynote speakers. Thus, acting as the representative of JGU, Dr. Meinard Kuhlmann of the Department of Philosophy will focus on how markets work and where they fail.

Invitation to students and teaching staff

To round off the conference, Ribeiro is currently designing a World Café, which she hopes will provide a space where "participants can hold open debates and discussions." The main topics will be discussed again around five or six tables. Later on, moderators will take the results to a final round.

"After the fantastic response to our call for papers, our project group is now highly motivated," avers Palmieri. "Quite a lot actually depended on the submissions. Now we have some peace of mind when it comes to planning as we know for certain that people will be coming. However, we are still not quite sure exactly how many visitors will actually turn up. We will have to wait and see. We had wondered whether we should ask people to register to attend in advance, but we really did want to keep ICON as open as possible to everyone. So all students and teaching staff are very much welcome and participation is still free of charge." Ribeiro is optimistic: "We will be meeting people from different cultures," she affirms. "We are really looking forward to that."