20 Years of Serving and Protecting: The Great Success of the NetCom

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No, not every­one in AEGEE wel­comed the Net­work Com­mis­sion with open arms. “Too pow­er­ful”, “a counter CD”, “too expen­sive”: these were the main reser­va­tions against the cre­ation of the new body, which should serve and pro­tect the AEGEE locals. Fears are nor­mal when a rev­o­lu­tion is com­ing. And the cre­ation of the Net­work Com­mis­sion exact­ly 20 years ago, in Novem­ber 1996, was noth­ing else than a rev­o­lu­tion. It made the net­work big­ger, bet­ter and stronger. Today we can­not imag­ine AEGEE with­out the Net­Com any­more. A look back.

I was excit­ed, near a state of eupho­ria. It was Day 1 after my elec­tion as Net­work Com­mis­sion­er and I was trav­el­ling home from Ankara to Györ, a beau­ti­ful provin­cial baroque town in Hun­gary, halfway between Budapest and Vien­na. I took my lap­top and start­ed to type a to-do list with the tasks for the next weeks. I was also prepar­ing a mail that I want­ed to send to every one of my more than 20 locals. I just couldn’t start to work for my region.

Back in Györ I realised that two of my anten­nae did not have e-mail: AEGEE-Oradea and AEGEE-Timisoara. It was the 3rd of Novem­ber 1997 and the Inter­net had not reached every cor­ner of Europe yet. So I took the phone and called the pres­i­dents of the two locals per­son­al­ly, intro­duc­ing myself to them, ask­ing them how their locals are doing and that I would be always there for them. Both anten­nae told me that they had recruit­ing days com­ing up in the fol­low­ing week, so I told them that I would vis­it them both.

agora97ankara49
Net­Com and Sub­com­mis­sion­ers at Ago­ra Ankara 1997

Culture shocks

Being a Net­work Com­mis­sion­er did not only mean to serve and pro­tect the locals, it was also a les­son in how diverse the net­work is and how dif­fer­ent anten­nae worked. Espe­cial­ly the vis­it to Oradea, a Roman­ian city right next to the Hun­gar­i­an bor­der, was a cul­ture shock. AEGEE-Oradea was unlike every anten­na I had ever seen. They had 60 mem­bers, but could have eas­i­ly hun­dreds. The asso­ci­a­tion was the dom­i­nant stu­dent force in town, they were even run­ning a pho­to­copy shop on behalf of the uni­ver­si­ty, they had count­less projects and a ratio of 80% to 90% active mem­bers.

Being in AEGEE-Oradea was a priv­i­lege. On the recruit­ing day around 60 stu­dents gath­ered in a uni­ver­si­ty audi­to­ri­um, where they had to write a knowl­edge test and how they imag­ine to con­tribute to AEGEE. In the next day the best of them had indi­vid­ual inter­views with a pan­el of three mem­bers of the board; the recruits were guid­ed one by one in a room, where they were asked about their project plans. It was like a tough job inter­view. Only the best were good enough for AEGEE-Oradea.

My vis­it was also a cul­ture shock for the anten­nae, because I showed them pho­tos of past events. When they saw the pic­tures of peo­ple in the gym, they couldn’t believe their eyes. It turned out that AEGEE-Oradea had nev­er organ­ised a big inter­na­tion­al event, because they were afraid that they could not offer high stan­dards like hos­tel rooms or hotel rooms to for­eign par­tic­i­pants.

It was a les­son for both sides and I felt imme­di­ate­ly, how impor­tant the Net­work Com­mis­sion real­ly is. The vis­it to Timisoara was less spec­tac­u­lar. AEGEE-Timisoara was an expe­ri­enced anten­na, they had organ­ised a Pres­i­dents Meet­ing – that’s how the EPM was called back then — just one year before. How­ev­er, also their new board was unaware how AEGEE worked else­where.

RM Iasi 1998
The Region­al Meet­ing in Iasi in Jan­u­ary 1998 focused on IT for anten­nae

A major disruption in an association in transition

I have to con­fess that I wasn’t always so excit­ed about the Net­work Com­mis­sion. One year before, in autumn 1996 I was one of the peo­ple who saw its cre­ation with a cer­tain amount of scep­ti­cism. To some peo­ple the idea to cre­ate this new body looked even like a coup d’état, pre­pared by a small secret cir­cle of peo­ple, ready to change the bal­ance of pow­er in the asso­ci­a­tion. Oth­ers had con­cerns because they had no time to think through what this new body meant, and again oth­ers because of pos­si­ble finan­cial con­se­quences for AEGEE-Europe. In gen­er­al, it was a fear of change by a major dis­rup­tion in a time where AEGEE already went through a tran­si­tion.

In fact, 1996 was a year of major struc­tur­al changes in AEGEE. In Jan­u­ary the head­of­fice of the asso­ci­a­tion had moved from Delft to Brus­sels – for a first time the asso­ci­a­tion had an own house where the CD mem­bers could live and work togeth­er under one roof. How­ev­er, this had a bad side effect. Had the mem­bers of the board of direc­tors pre­vi­ous­ly worked all over Europe and could trav­el around and sup­port their net­work area next to their actu­al CD work, they were now con­cen­trat­ed all in one spot. Many peo­ple feared a cer­tain ivory tow­er effect – a CD that would be dis­con­nect­ed from the net­work.

At the same time the CD was get­ting small­er. Already for a while not all 16 places could be filled. For exam­ple, the CD elect­ed in April 1996 had only 11 mem­bers and five vacan­cies. For many peo­ple this was still too big, since the first head­of­fice did not have the capac­i­ty for so many peo­ple. Trav­el reim­burse­ments for so many peo­ple was some­thing AEGEE could not afford either, since the asso­ci­a­tion now had to pay a lot of rent. There­fore a pro­pos­al was in mak­ing to reduce the num­ber of CD mem­bers to only nine, hop­ing that this would be enough, since every­one would work togeth­er and hard­er in Brus­sels.

Some peo­ple how­ev­er remained skep­ti­cal about this. Already some time ago a group of AEGEE strate­gists dis­cussed the idea of hav­ing a CD with six mem­bers in Brus­sels and six peo­ple liv­ing all over Europe. How­ev­er, this idea was scrapped since it would have cre­ate a huge imbal­ance in the team. There­fore some thinkers around ris­ing star Bern­hard Müller from AEGEE-Augs­burg and AEGEE-Aachen oldie Philipp von Klitz­ing came up with the plan to cre­ate a new body with the task of tak­ing care of ten dif­fer­ent flex­i­ble net­work regions – the Net­work Com­mis­sion.

Netcom Office Hungary
In 1998, my flat in Györ turned into a Net­Com office with info about all my locals on the wall

Secret planning and alternative ideas

Only a small cir­cle of hand­picked peo­ple was involved in the plan. And exact­ly this pro­ce­dure caused some con­cern. Only a few weeks before the Ago­ra Athi­na, at the Pres­i­dents Meet­ing in Timisoara in Sep­tem­ber 1996, more and more peo­ple got involved.

The Comité Directeur sus­pect­ed that this new body would be some­thing like a counter-CD and lob­bied against its cre­ation. They were afraid of the pow­er of a body that was much clos­er to the peo­ple in the net­work than them­selves. They came up with an alter­na­tive plan: to cre­ate Ser­vice Groups which would serve as knowl­edge hubs, for exam­ple in PR or print­ing mat­ters. This new body should make the Net­work Com­mis­sion obso­lete, accord­ing to the CD’s plan.

Oth­er mem­bers were afraid that the Net­Com would be a bur­den for the AEGEE-Europe bud­get, since the orig­i­nal pro­pos­al fore­saw some reim­burse­ments for the Net­work Com­mis­sion­ers, who had to trav­el and phone a lot in a time before Skype and low-cost flights. In the end, after long dis­cus­sions the del­e­gates of the Autmn Ago­ra Athí­na vot­ed in favour of the new com­mis­sion – exact­ly 20 years ago, on 11th of Novem­ber 1996. With one major reser­va­tion: the Net­Com, who need­ed to trav­el a lot, had to work for free, with­out any reim­burse­ment. Net­Com father Bern­hard Müller accept­ed this amend­ment with a heavy heart, since he did not want to endan­ger the whole con­cept. Also the Ser­vice Groups were estab­lished, by the way – and can­celled a cou­ple of years lat­er, since the idea was a flop.

The new body starts to work

REGIONS
The orig­i­nal map of the net­work regions in 1997

There was still half a year to go before the elec­tion of the first Net­work Com­mis­sion­ers at Spring Ago­ra Enschede 1997. But this time was not idle: the Net­work Com­mis­sion Imple­men­ta­tion Team start­ed work­ing on the cre­ation of the struc­tures and inter­nal rules of the new body. The basic idea is the same until today: to sup­port new con­tacts and locals, to help anten­nae and con­tact anten­nae in cri­sis, to moti­vate locals to orga­nize local and inter­na­tion­al events, to improve their struc­ture, to fos­ter knowl­edge trans­fer between locals, to be a bridge between Comité Directeur and locals, to show mem­bers what they can do on Euro­pean lev­el – and to orga­nize Net­work Meet­ings, which were called Region­al Meet­ings from 1997 to 2006.

In Enschede the new body won the hearts and minds of many scep­ti­cal peo­ple. The can­di­dates were some of the bright­est peo­ple from the net­work: such as the first Net­Com speak­er Tim Sat­tler, for­mer Pres­i­dent from Ham­burg; Ago­ra Athi­na orga­niz­er and anten­na Pres­i­dent Fani Zari­fopoulou; Rolf Wienköt­ter from Vien­na, for­mer Pres­i­dent of AEGEE-Inns­bruck; Marcin Polak from War­saw, who knew the Pol­ish bet­ter than any­one else, or Markus Schön­herr from Pas­sau, who was not only a huge Balkan expert, but also in the board of the gov­ern­ing lib­er­al FDP par­ty in Ger­many. Most of them were charis­mat­ic peo­ple with a sharp and inde­pen­dent mind and a big heart for AEGEE. Each of them had acquired a lot of AEGEE expe­ri­ence. And despite some of them being quite indi­vid­u­al­is­tic peo­ple, they made a great team.

Also anten­nae could can­di­date as Net­work Com­mis­sion­ers, thus cre­at­ing a less­er work­load for the indi­vid­u­als and the advan­tage of being able to use office resources to some extent. The team con­sist­ed of 10 peo­ple or anten­nae, not 11 indi­vid­u­als like today – the 11th per­son was added lat­er, to adapt to the growth of the net­work.

Netcom effect
After 1997 the net­work grew a lot!

Enormous growth

After the elec­tion in April 1997 the team went straight to work. The task divi­sion was strict­ly region­al. At the begin­ning of his term, Net­Com speak­er Tim Sat­tler took a map of Europe and divid­ed the con­ti­nent in ten clear­ly sep­a­rat­ed zones, called regions. These area were not fixed bor­ders, they were to be reeval­u­at­ed every year accord­ing to the liv­ing places of the Net­work Com­mis­sion­ers. How­ev­er, lat­er this con­cept became for­got­ten and the region­al bor­ders start­ed to remain – until 2006 all regions were abol­ished and the word itself became a for­bid­den word. That’s why we talk about “net­works” or “areas” or even “locals assigned to XY” today, avoid­ing the word “region”.

The net­work growth, which start­ed in 1997, was incred­i­ble. In April 1997 the net­work had 121 anten­nae, 38 con­tact anten­nae and 64 con­tacts. One year lat­er there were 16 anten­nae, 7 con­tact anten­nae and 26 con­tacts more! A very pop­u­lar mea­sure of these ear­ly times era were net­work trips, where Net­work Com­mis­sion­ers toured to uni­ver­si­ties with­out AEGEE togeth­er with oth­er expe­ri­enced peo­ple and cre­at­ed new con­tacts. There was time for that, because the admin­is­tra­tive work­load for each Net­work Com­mis­sion­er was a lot less than today. For exam­ple, instead of forc­ing locals to send month­ly reports there was only one report per semes­ter; and that was a stan­dard form with two pages.

Dif­fer­ent from today, there were far less anten­na cri­te­ria. A local had to pay a fee, make annu­al board elec­tions and orga­nize an inter­na­tion­al event at least every two years – those were the main cri­te­ria. The Net­Com did not have to mon­i­tor “Active Com­mu­ni­ca­tion” by writ­ing down exact­ly whether the month­ly report was sent with­in one week of the sched­uled date – and nei­ther had the Net­Com to assign full points or minus points for that.

First and all the Net­work Com­mis­sion­ers saw them­selves as the pro­tec­tor of the net­work, the friend of the locals – because for them the net­work came first. No won­der, that in 2002 Net­Com speak­er Davide Cal­en­da from Venice was sug­gest­ing the mot­to “To serve and pro­tect”, which is still used today. He also cre­at­ed the slo­gan “Fuck the CD, fuck the Acad­e­my” when it came to Net­Com work, because he want­ed to spare the locals from too many admin­is­tra­tive or orga­ni­za­tion­al bur­dens.

The only month­ly reports were those writ­ten by the Net­work Com­mis­sion­ers about their region. Since nei­ther Skype, Hang­outs nor even sim­ple chat pro­grams exist­ed, all com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the team was done via e-mail in the late 90ies. The only chat chan­nel in exis­tence was IRC, but since this worked often with big delays of up to 30 sec­onds for some peo­ple, it was not suit­able for us for online dis­cus­sions.

The whole team was meet­ing twice per year, aside from the Ago­ras. One of these Net­Com meet­ings took place in Brus­sels, in order to dis­cuss mat­ters also with the CD, the oth­er one was host­ed by a local or a Net­work­Com­mis­sion­er some­where in Europe. And these Net­Com meet­ings were leg­endary, with long dis­cus­sions and even big­ger fun.

First Netcom website
The first Net­Com home­page in 1998

Stepping up

I was very hap­py when Markus Schön­herr asked me to be his Sub­com­mis­sion­er for Hun­gary after Ago­ra Enschede. The con­cept of Sub­com­mis­sion­ers was intro­duced right from the start, strict­ly with a region­al task. Usu­al­ly there was a max­i­mum of one Sub­Com per coun­try. We were both from Ger­many, but while Markus stud­ied in Ger­many, I lived in Hun­gary. So I took over the sup­port for the locals in the coun­try. Markus had enough on his plate, because aside from Hun­gary also locals from Roma­nia, Moldo­va and Ser­bia belonged to his region.

It felt great to be part of the very first Net­Com team, to be the first point of sup­port for the locals and to dicuss with Markus on a con­stant basis. It gave me a strong sense of pur­pose, bet­ter than being in the CD in the year before, which had rather been an unpleas­ant expe­ri­ence.

Half a year lat­er the CD was look­ing for a new Trea­sur­er and Markus decid­ed to take up that job, com­bin­ing it with the Net­work Direc­tor tasks. This deci­sion came quite late, so at the begin­ning of Ago­ra Ankara, dur­ing a meet­ing of the whole Net­Com team, it was dis­cussed who should take over Markus’ job. There were two options on the table: Calin Haiduc, who was Markus’ Sub­com­mis­sion­er for Roma­nia, and me. I was hap­py to see that the oth­er Net­Com mem­bers want­ed me to take over. My con­di­tion: I want­ed to have the three Slo­vak locals too, because I lived close to the bor­der to Slo­va­kia and was in bet­ter con­tact with them than Marcin Polak, who took take care of the biggest region – stretch­ing from East­ern Ger­many to Belarus. I received 93% of the Ago­ra votes. That wasn’t so hard being unop­posed, but it felt good any­way.

New Contacts
Lots of con­tacts signed the Con­ven­tion d’Adhesion in 1998

Motivation and trouble-shooting

The biggest fun of the job was moti­vat­ing peo­ple. In Jan­u­ary 1998, two months after my elec­tion, Markus and I made a great trip togeth­er from Budapest to Chisin­au, with a lot of stops, moti­vat­ing five anten­nae on the way to orga­nize Sum­mer Uni­ver­si­ties. How­ev­er, the orig­i­nal rea­son for this trip was rather unpleas­ant. The Vice-Pres­i­dent of AEGEE-Chisin­au had writ­ten a let­ter in which he accused the Pres­i­dent of not hold­ing elec­tions, more­over he told us that there were finan­cial irreg­u­lar­i­ties of their Sum­mer Uni­ver­si­ty in 1997: the anten­na pres­i­dent had invit­ed friends over to the SU, who took part with­out pay­ing – thus three days before the event there was no mon­ey any­more in the cash­box.

Markus and I ordered the Pres­i­dent of AEGEE-Chisin­au to hold new board elec­tions that we would per­son­al­ly over­see. For us it was a great occa­sion to vis­it Moldo­va – being in the Net­Com real­ly broad­ened the hori­zon. How­ev­er, when we arrived the whole local Ago­ra was a farce. The Pres­i­dent resigned and hand­ed over the task to the Vice-Pres­i­dent, every­one was hap­py and smil­ing – except for the Trea­sur­er, Veron­i­ca Miron, who told us that this was just a the­atre play and noth­ing would change in the anten­na. In fact, she was right – and one year lat­er AEGEE had to shut down the local for using AEGEE as a trav­el agency which orga­nized bus trips to big events. The board mem­bers earned thou­sands of Euros with this. For­tu­nate­ly some great new mem­bers were already on stand-by, who cre­at­ed today’s great AEGEE-Chisin­au.

nwmcagliari128
Net­Com today: three gen­er­a­tions of Net­work Com­mis­sion­ers

Hostile takeover in Serbia

Anoth­er earth­quake in my region hap­pened in Novi Sad. The great local, found­ed in Novem­ber 1995, want­ed to reg­is­ter final­ly with the local author­i­ties. How­ev­er, the Vice-Pres­i­dent of the local stole the papers from the com­put­er of the Pres­i­dent and hand­ed them in him­self — with a dif­fer­ent list of board mem­bers and him as pres­i­dent. When the real pres­i­dent went to the author­i­ties in order to reg­is­ter, she found out that she was too late.

In par­al­lel the fake pres­i­dent had sent the names of his fake board to the Address­Book Coor­di­na­tion team, which for­ward­ed the board changes to the Net­work Com­mis­sion­ers. I was sur­prised to see the board change and wrote a mail to the real pres­i­dent: “Jas­na, what hap­pened? Why did you resign?” With­in an hour she wrote back: “I did what?” Then the whole sit­u­a­tion explod­ed. Jas­na called for an extra­or­di­nary local Ago­ra, I was talk­ing to her and the oppo­si­tion and wit­nessed how the fake pres­i­dent and his friends were exclud­ed from the AEGEE-Novi Sad.

Meetings and training

Also orga­niz­ing Region­al Meet­ings was part of the Net­Com work. The first one I orga­nized was right after the Chisin­au trip in Iasi. Six weeks lat­er I was train­er at the Region­al Meet­ing of Marcin Polak in Cra­cow. The Net­work Com­mis­sion­ers sup­port­ed each oth­er where they could; my clos­est coop­er­a­tion was with Rolf Wienköt­ter from Vien­na, who lived just a train-ride of 90 min­utes away. Togeth­er we helped to set up AEGEE in Graz or were pro­mot­ing AEGEE at the biggest uni­ver­si­ty fair in Aus­tria. In a time when the Acad­e­my did not exist yet, we also tried to improve the train­ings for locals. In spring 1998 I orga­nized a Sum­mer Uni­ver­si­ty Organ­is­ers Meet­ing (SUOM) in Veszprém, close to the Bal­a­ton Lake – which was a SUPS, long before the con­cept became pop­u­lar.

It was very hard to let go off the task of Net­work Com­mis­sion­er, but I moved back from Hun­gary to Ger­many. It made no sense to con­tin­ue. Look­ing ack, it was the best task I ever had in AEGEE. Most Net­work Com­mis­sion­ers will prob­a­bly tell the same. Noth­ing feels so reward­ing as help­ing the net­work, while being in so close con­tact.

May the Net­work Com­mis­sion live for­ev­er. To serve and pro­tect!

 

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