By Laura Silva Aya
Ever since I was a child, I have felt most comfortable expressing myself through words. Perhaps born out of my love of reading, for me written and spoken words hold an unparalleled power. It’s not uncommon for words to spark real and genuine emotion in me – and I end up crying, or laughing, or fuming at the topic at hand.
Perhaps it was this sensitivity to expression through words that drew me to The Graduate Press. I was first intrigued by the pieces that had been published by TGP in the Spring of 2020 which sought to hold the Institute’s director at the time, Phillip Burrin, accountable for his problematic words. My curiosity only grew as TGP offered increasing coverage of the different social movements that students were bringing visibility to in the Spring and Summer of 2020. As TGP grew brighter and bolder, I jumped in headfirst, excited about the possibility to read and write in a space that was separate from the classroom.
Thus began my year-long adventure first as Swiss/French Editor, then as co-Editor-in-Chief, of The Graduate Press. At the risk of becoming too saccharine, it’s hard to express how much my experience with TGP has meant to me. I am not the same person I was. During a year that was lonely, difficult and painful, The Graduate Press gave me purpose when I felt emotionally lost at sea – even softening the sharp edges of a creeping cynicism within me resulting from my disillusionment with the Graduate Institute and International Geneva. My foray into student journalism has kindled a joy and a passion within me which I didn’t even know existed.
Overly sentimental and naïve of me, perhaps. But the truth is that having the privilege to witness the beating heart of the Graduate Institute student body is a truly poignant experience. Evidently, there are a plethora of reasons why students (and alumni) submit pieces to be published by TGP. Through it all, though, I got the sense that people – far before trying to convince others of the righteousness of their opinions or seeking self-aggrandizement – merely wanted to share and be heard. And in their own way, they wanted to have a positive impact on the world around them.
There is something truly lovely, truly moving about helping to create a space where the issues and opinions which students care deeply about – which affect them, their families, their countries, their communities, and their futures – are shared and given an honest, respectful platform. More often than not, what people write about echoes the very reasons they have chosen to study at the Graduate Institute in the first place – what matters so deeply to them that they make the choice to leave their homes and families (often on the other side of the world) to spend two years or more in one of the most expensive and competitive cities in the world, to study at an Institution that often struggles to meet their needs and offer genuine support, especially in the midst of a pandemic.
Providing such a platform is critical. In my opinion, this is what makes student publications such interesting and potentially powerful creatures. The fact that they are often run by unpaid student volunteers – instead of career journalists and reporters – does not mean that they are any less professional or that they don’t strive to uphold high journalistic standards of transparency and integrity.
Not only do they offer coverage of things happening in the context of student life, they also offer a bridge to the larger communities, discussing world politics, economic affairs, and local and global circumstances that are meaningful to the lives of many. In a world where local news is existentially threatened and where journalism is increasingly suffering the effects of corporate and state influence, student journalists and publications can fill the gap. They are local by default, crowded in the experiences of students first. They inform, provoke, build connections, confront and break obstacles, and most importantly, hold accountable. They can make a difference.
The Graduate Press itself occupies a curious – sometimes complex – role at the Graduate Institute. Being the Institute’s only student press, it seeks to empower student voices and opinions, while remaining as independent and neutral as possible. It is embroiled in student politics, yet inherently serves as a public record. Its ultimate aim is to create a space for the student community to be able to engage in open dialogue on complex issues. Whether we have succeeded in reaching this lofty goal is a different question, of course.
As the last semester has demonstrated, an objective like this comes with not inconsiderable difficulties. The reality is that engaging in debate and open dialogue on things that matter to students can mean uncomfortable criticism for some. Being the platform that hosts this type of exchange has meant that TGP has faced challenges at an institutional and administrative level, not to mention tension and displeasure from other students.
At times, it felt as if we played the unfortunate role of the Institute punching bag. We received discontent and anger from different directions multiple times. There were accusations of unprofessionalism and intentional ‘narrative-building’, complaints of misrepresentation, implications that we were operating with a lack of integrity, abrupt demands for publication beyond what the Editorial Board (despite our best efforts) could provide, and even accusations of censorship1.
It all made my experience as co-Editor-in-Chief particularly colorful. Obviously, it’s only right that TGP be called out for making mistakes and taking missteps.
First and foremost, we should be held to high standards. So, despite the fact that I found myself navigating editorial crises at 3 in the morning, there was also a strange, feisty satisfaction in knowing that passions were inflamed. People were reading, listening, debating. We were the platform we had set out to be, and it was wonderful.
As for the less-than-substantiated animosity aimed at the press, it was a question of professional integrity to simply move on. In my opinion, the function of a press is to provoke reflection and critical thought, not stroke egos nor provide flattery to those in positions of power. Though some may bristle, it would be a dark day indeed if we came to accept the notion that any of us are above honest and constructive critique. Precisely because its greatest responsibility, above all else, is to hold us all accountable, a free and independent press cannot and should not refuse to engage with difficult or unpleasant questions. It has a duty to report on abuses of power and instances that harm or negatively affect members of our community. To not raise our voice when we witness these things take place would be unethical. This is not what TGP stands for.
Not everyone was happy with us and our editorial choices. Nor will they ever be. But we can take this as a source of inspiration. After all, there is beauty in contention. There is beauty in debate, disagreement, frustration, passion. We should all embrace the discomfort, the irritation, the intensity of feeling that comes with expressing ourselves and having others disagree with our opinions. It is through these types of thorny experiences that we grow – as individuals, as friends and community members, as scholars, and as local and global citizens.
Platforms for self-expression can push us to question our own paradigms and instill in us the willingness to confront issues through dialogue instead of violence. Ultimately, they provide a beautiful opportunity to learn to cultivate greater kindness, greater empathy, greater respect.
I poured a lot of myself into this plucky student publication. And so, as my time on the Editorial Board of The Graduate Press comes to a close, in an exceptionally sentimental move, I ask you to help keep the inquisitive, bold spirit of TGP alive.
Embrace the press and make it your own. It belongs to you – to all of us. Raise your voice; let it ring loud and clear. Learn from your fellows and question what you know. Keep building an open space for the debate of complex, troublesome ideas and fill it with the spirit of empathy. Express yourself with passion, in whatever medium you choose, and through your creativity, provoke in us the best versions of ourselves.
May generation after generation of future Graduate Institute students find their voice at The Graduate Press.
- Ironically, it is TGP policy to publish all student and alumni submissions (so long as they follow basic guidelines for respect and tolerance for others). Unless a piece is found to be defamatory or intentionally spreading misinformation, The Graduate Press will endeavor to publish it. Thus, not only are accusations of censorship particularly dubious, if patterns within publications can be traced, it is because they genuinely represent student concerns. Guidelines for submissions can be found here.
Laura Silva Aya was French/Swiss Editor and co-Editor-in-Chief of The Graduate Press (Fall 2020-Spring 2021). She is in the final stages of completing her Master’s degree in International Relations/Political Science and hopes to find a way to combine her new-found passion for journalism with her desire to make the world a less violent place. She is Colombian-Canadian.
Image taken by the author. Sunset over the Magdalena River in Santa Cruz de Mompox, Colombia (July 2021).