Opinion Student Life

Contestation and Nuances Should Remain the Norm at the Graduate Institute

An Editorial Farewell Letter by Samuel Pablo Pareira

This piece represents the opinion of the author, and may not represent that of The Graduate Press Editorial Board, of which the author is a member.

As my time in The Graduate Press concludes tomorrow, I offer my personal reflections after 12 months serving on the Editorial Board, my observations of our student community this past year, and of my own life and hardships during two years at the Institute.

Contrary to the common perception or stereotype of international students coming from the Global South, I was not born into wealthy families or the elite circle of Indonesia – those who are continuously sucking up our country’s natural resources and richness through their connection to the 32-years long military despot, corruption, or both. To be honest, I despise them, though I have some good friends coming from those families. 

I was born of a literal Indonesian working class family, floating around the $1.9/day poverty line for some time, truly understanding what it means when you only have rice and onion on the dinner table. I was raised in domestic violence and lost my mother to a stroke a month before my college graduation. It is my wit, survival instinct, and hard work that got me to this point.

Before coming to Geneva, I was a journalist during my last two years in Jakarta. I mainly covered economy and trade issues, but also covered political protests and riots. I have experienced the feeling of almost being shot by police, or having someone threatening to kill you because of what you wrote. Somehow, I enjoyed it… Maybe I was an adrenaline junkie, maybe I am a masochist; who knows?

Hence, when Anne Steele (former Co-editor in Chief) asked me to help build The Graduate Press last year, I agreed as long as I could focus on news & reporting and stay away from student politics. 

In my view, student politics in many Western higher-education institutions these days has swayed from advocating student welfare to …. basically, advocating for too many issues without a clear priority. After a year of sitting on the TGP Editorial Board and observing first-hand how power dynamics and student politics occur in our beloved Institute, I’m deeply disappointed to still be proven right.

There is an old Indonesian proverb “kuman di seberang lautan tampak, gajah di pelupuk mata tidak tampak” (literal translation: a germ across the sea can be seen, but an elephant on the eyelid is invisible). It means the faults of others are easier to see than our own. It can also mean that you are focusing your attention  too much on issues far away, but ignoring problems that are close around you.

To put it into context of our Institute, I invite you to reflect on what has been happening within our student community over the past 12 months, regarding a certain set of agenda and issues brought forward and endorsed by our elected student body over the others. I love to call it our collective ignorance.  

If you fight vigorously to endorse an external movement that strongly critiques a foreign power, then you should have raised your voice louder to demand financial transparency and scholarship/visa extension/housing financial support from IHEID for your fellow colleagues.

Or, if you campaign passionately to support certain human rights issues in Switzerland or other countries, you should have also criticised vocally the lack of empathy and blindness of privilege shown by the Institute in their de-facto decision to only allow certain guests just one month before the Graduation Ceremony.

I didn’t say endorsing movements is wrong or showing solidarity for human rights issues is not important. This is not a zero-sum game and should never be.

But the following issues are the issues that put deep emotional burdens and mental stress on many of our colleagues, myself included: living in one of the most expensive cities in the world, thousands of kilometres away from home with financial and legal uncertainty in a time of global pandemic. Can you imagine how it feels when your own currency becomes devalued more than 15% against the Swiss Franc overnight because of COVID? 

These are the elephants on our eyelids, right within Maison de la Paix and the Picciotto/ Grand Morillon Residence. 

Has there been any motion put forward by our student body about this? Has there been any protest in front of the Maison de la Paix about all this? None. Non. Nein. Niente. Nada. 

It angers me so much that there was not enough of a fight from our own student body to defend the rights of their colleagues to study here in peace, with enough food on their table, without worrying about their financial crisis.

Thus, I’m sorry to say that as long as our own student community is ignorant of these issues that are close to our hearts, that affect our daily life at the Institute, I could not take the words “Student Solidarity” seriously.

I offer a simple tip to our privileged colleagues who aim to pursue careers in humanitarianism, solve global inequality, and fight for human rights after graduating from IHEID: 

Always reflect on your own privilege, always understand the nuances, before making further judgements, endorsements, and actions on issues impacting others. 

Looking back to the moment when I first arrived at the Institute, back in September 2019, I came to a realization almost instantly: the Institute is a miniature of our very own diverse world. With more than 80% international students, it is a diversity which is not only reflected merely in the colour of our skins, but also in culture and traditions, different ways of thinking, life philosophy, values. 

To put it simply, you can hardly find a single narrative that the entire student community agrees with. And, you know what? It’s beautiful. It’s supposed to be the core strength of our institution: not to produce graduates of a single dominating narrative, but to ensure its graduates are equipped with the most important wisdom of all: the wisdom of nuances.

I strongly believe that all the narratives and issues we are studying as scholars here should be constantly contested, using the diversity of values and point of views we have within our community. Only then can we go out there and aim to be intellectuals, activists, politicians, humanitarians, and hopefully, better and wiser human beings.

We live in a complex world, where all parts of our society scream that their interests should be taken as priority, while the Mother Earth we stood by is crumbling from climate change due to our own activities. 

Contestation and nuance will help our journey navigating this world going forward, and they should remain the guiding norm of the Graduate Institute.

Finally, I just want to congratulate my fellow graduates on your monumental achievement. 

Completing your Master study during a once-in-century global pandemic, with half of your two years time done in front of computer screens. Finishing your Master dissertation research under difficult circumstances, with some of you writing it as your first academic paper in English as your second or third language. 

I am proud of you, and I wish you all good fortune in the wars to come.

PS. I would like to personally thank Anne Steele, Isabela Joia, Tapakshi Magan, Safa Rahim, Neva Newcombe, Laura Silva Aya, Dario De Quarti, Silvia Ecclesia, Mallika Goel, and Lisa Caberlotto, for their unwavering trust and teamwork spirit during my 12 months of service at TGP Editorial Board. Also, huge congratulations to our Fall 2020 Editorial Board for receiving the Student Leadership Award. I wish you all good luck in your future endeavours.

Samuel Pablo Pareira is a recent MA in International Affairs graduate at the Graduate Institute and former Senior Editor of The Graduate Press. Indonesian born and raised in Jakarta, he was a journalist for CNBC Indonesia, with extensive coverage on the archipelagic country’s domestic & international trade, manufactures, and palm oil industry. He also covered Indonesian domestic politics. You can reach him on TwitterLinkedIn, and Instagram.

Photo by Samuel Pablo Pareira

2 comments on “Contestation and Nuances Should Remain the Norm at the Graduate Institute

  1. Massimiliano Masini

    Thank you Pablo for this farewell article. I could not agree more on the invitations to be reflective of one’s privilege and to maintain the nuances, and I have witnessed the faults of student activism and solidarity first-hand too. However, I substantially disagree with your argumentation and I think it reflects well three main trends that I have been having difficulties with concerning The Graduate Press in the last year. Firstly, I feel this is not a space to start dialogue and discussions anymore. I do not know whether it has ever been, but now it has become just a space for anyone to share their views, which remain in most cases limited to these ‘pages’ and do not talk to each other. On the contrary, the numerous spaces where discussion actually takes place have been oftentimes diserted during my stay at the IHEID; this is probably normal given how hectic our student life has been and the institutional constraints of such spaces, but it also means that we all need to take collective ownership of the faults of student solidarity at the Graduate Institute. Secondly, once again, the article scrutinises the work of the representative Board of the student association, which is undoubtedly a crucial role for The Graduate Press, without really focusing on the dynamic with an Administration that, with few nodes of decisional power and no deliberative role for student representatives, is very difficult to prompt into change (despite the best intentions and efforts of so many in its ranks), to say it with a remarkable euphemism. Indeed, you focus on very specific parts of what has happened within GISA in the last year, namely the votes to endorse social movements (the BDS campaign and Apartheid-Free Zones Declaration, and referenda in Switzerland). But, although highly visible because politicised, these have been a marginal part of the advocacy of the GISA Board and of student activism more generally and they have not prevented nor have been prioritised over other ‘battles’. On the contrary, they were successful also because, entirely internal to our student body, they did not require all the daily work of negotiating any achievement for the student body. Although I do not want to celebrate the GISA Board and our student community, whose activism is crucial to constantly critique, it is important to note that this work has never stopped, just look at all the notes, minutes and Reports produced by the GISA Board, class representatives and initiatives, and has tried to address the issues you mention and many more, also with the help of initiatives such as QISA and student-led spaces of discussion such as United Initiatives, sometimes achieving some results. But, and here comes the third trend, working on multiple fronts does not mean ignoring the priorities. On the contrary it is a pragmatic strategy to confront a hierarchical Graeberian burocracy at the forefront of the neoliberalisation of higher education, a strategy that is far from perfect and comes from the everyday struggle (during a pandemic) of reimagining student activism and solidarity in a space in which students are not co-owners of an educational process but clients of a service provider (give a look at our new Charter). So, in conclusion, although in very different positionalities, as students at the Institute we generally share the same priorities. After checking our privilege and while maintaining a nuanced position, though, we need to refocus the scope of our analysis on the politics of such priorities to keep working on them together. 

    Liked by 1 person

    • Delcia Orona

      Thank you Massimiliano for your precise and eloquent comment. It captures everything that I could imagine it to in response to the original article. After reflecting on this and reflecting on my work over the past year or so with QISA, I fully maintain that these issues are not mutually exclusive – and never will be.


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