That’s what you call a choice: At the Agora in Enschede CD member Gizem Karslı, Luis Alvarado Martínez and Olimpia Pârje wil compete for the presidency of AEGEE-Europe. The Golden Times asked Gizem, currently Projects Director of AEGEE-Europe, about her motivation and programme. “I want to make AEGEE thematically stronger, find alternative fundraising resources and strengthen the importance of non-formal education in AEGEE”, Gizem says.

Golden Times: Gizem, we all know you as Projects Director of the CD. What achievements are you most proud of since September?
Gizem Karslı: I am the thematic person of the team and I love it! The task that has taken my time the most has been the planning part. Namely, the tasks related to the Action Agenda, ACT, the Strategic Plan and most importantly EBM. After the approval of the EBM reform, I had the mission to make EBM İzmir a kick off for AEGEE, which was a challenge. After a long time, AEGEE has not only talked about itself but about real problems Europe has. I am really proud to tell everybody that AEGEE has tackled freedom of press, freedom of speech, the regime in Belarus, militarism, conflicts in Caucasus, youth participation and other highly valuable topics. We dared to go out of our comfort zone. This is the success of the participants, workshop leaders, facilitators, back office managers, organisers. And I am simply proud to share this success with each one of them. EBM İzmir will be a milestone in my life that will not be forgotten.

Golden Times: How and when did you actually join AEGEE?
Gizem: It was almost five years ago in 2007. Before, I had been taken part in movements for freedom of thought in Turkey, mainly working with and for young people and women. Once I made it to the university, I started to question the impact and the aim of these movements. Sadly, I had realised that they were not solution oriented. Then, I saw a poster with stars of the European Union. Unfortunately, from many Turkish’ point of view, the EU accession is considered to be a pink story that is used to cover up the vital democracy and human rights problems of Turkey. With this in mind, I went to the AEGEE-Ankara office, quite sceptical. It took me only a few months to realise that AEGEE was the type of organisation I was looking for.

Golden Times: Which were your best moments so far in AEGEE?
Gizem: There are many of them! One of them was in 2010. During our Living Library project – If you haven’t heard of it before, I highly recommend to google it, or you can always ask me – we were having tea with one of our books, Ayşe. She told me a story of her own, a story that shows how cruel humankind can be, a story I will never be able to forget, and she thanked AEGEE-Ankara to give her a chance to express herself. I guess I haven’t felt more important.

Golden Times:
And which were your worst moments?
Gizem: The worst ones are not nice to remember… My family had been through an unexpected crisis that made me question my candidature and consider withdrawing it. That were the worst two weeks of my AEGEE life. My mother whom I owe a lot, supported me wholeheartedly and ‘’obliged’’ me to follow my ideals. Thanks to her and my dear AEGEE Friends from Ankara, I still have confidence and courage enough to go on yet another year…

Golden Times:
Please complete this sentence: “AEGEE is for me…”
Gizem: AEGEE is for me the place where I am welcomed whomever I am, a place where I can be a real part of the society by contributing to it.

Golden Times:
Now you will candidate at the Agora in Enschede for President of AEGEE-Europe. How did you get the idea?
Gizem: February 2011 changed my mind completely. Before, my plan was to go back to Turkey and work, as I got a pretty good job offer. But EBM İzmir made me think once more. Seeing people actively discussing and learning was simply amazing. It was how I always wanted to see AEGEE! Then, I attended ES2 Castelló and spent ten days with highly motivated and motivating people and I got even more confused… The day I arrived back home, I saw an article about a workshop in EBM where I gave a short speech. The workshop was about Freedom of speech in Turkey. Martina Zanero from AEGEE-Torino told in her article that we opened their eyes with a neither significant nor pleasant experience of mine during a student uprising. That night I decided. There must have been a reason for all these amazing experiences that took place one after the other.

Golden Times:
What motivates you to candidate?
Gizem: AEGEE itself, our members. AEGEE changed my life and I bet there are hundreds of people who would tell the same. And these individuals can build the Europe we would like to live in. And I am motivated and passionate enough to do my best to ensure that AEGEE will go on changing individuals and thanks to them turning Europe into a better place.

Golden Times: Which three issues would you like to focus on, change or improve in AEGEE as President?
Gizem: Make AEGEE thematically stronger. Organising conferences similar to EBM İzmir in different sizes where our members will be able to discuss, question and be informed about the topics we are working on. We all know that Europe is going through this infamous time of crisis, the concept of the integrated Europe is being questioned. AEGEE‘s main aim is to foster the European Integration. I can imagine AEGEE as the initiator of a series of conferences where European Integration will be analysed from different aspects; education, enlargement, human rights, environment, economics. If we are successful, such an event will not only reach and involve the entire network, but also increase our visibility and credibility towards the European Commission, the European Parliament and all other vital stakeholders. This would be the first focus; build a thematically strong AEGEE.

Golden Times: Ah, events like the Micro University in 1996, which was a huge success. What’s the second focus?
Gizem: The second focus is financial. We are not the best when it comes to fundraising, as we usually try to sell our identity as a big international student organisation. We should realise that AEGEE is not the only international organisation anymore and offer something concrete. How it will happen? The first focus above will give us enough visibility, concrete results and action plans to promote and to get support in return – cash or in kind. When I was in the board of AEGEE-Ankara my position showed me how much fundraising possibilities there are in national contexts. So why not to focus on this kind of alternative resources in European, regional and national contexts and the get the best out of them.

Golden Times: And the third focus?
Gizem: Non-formal education. We are taught in universities, but we learn in AEGEE. We provide our members with non-formal ways of education, which constitute an important part of their personal development and plays a major role in their professional careers. One of the biggest problems Europe is facing right now is youth unemployment. Supporting formal education will certainly not be the remedy. The easy transition to the labour market cannot happen without non-formal education. Therefore, we should work on the recognition of our training courses and encourage our member to attend our European Schools more, where they prepare themselves to take an active role in AEGEE.

Golden Times: Some people want structural changes, outsource tasks from the CD to the network, in order to have more resources for the CD to do lobby work or fundraising in Brussels. What do you think about this?
Gizem: The European Commission’s new proposal “Erasmus for All” is shamefully leaving youth organisations aside. This urges us to look for alternative structures and resources. Moreover, it is not a new fact that AEGEE has limited resources. We should use these already limited sources wisely which means, if a system is not working or if there is better one, we should dare to change, we should welcome reforms. And AEGEE is lucky that there are experienced and valuable people working on possible solutions. When it comes to outsourcing the task of the Comité Directeur; that should be done with or without these structural changes. Our European bodies are capable of taking more responsibilities, so why not involve them more. This will certainly be more beneficial for the Comité Directeur and for the network.

Golden Times: How would you like to ensure AEGEE more visibility in politics, the general public and among students?
Gizem: To start with, we should understand what politics is. I have experienced quite a few times that we tend to stay indifferent as we don’t know what exactly politics is about. But, in practise, it is not really possible as politics affects every aspect of life. The second step is to explain our members that AEGEE is a political organisation. When we say that we don’t have any national level, we already make a strong political statement. Once we know better who we are, then comes the second question; what we are supposed to as a political student organisation with certain aims. There is a common misunderstanding that student organisations are not able to influence politics or offer real solutions; this is completely wrong.

Golden Times: Give an example, please.

Gizem: In each Agora we bring together people from politically troubled areas for the same aims; this is an achievement that cannot be reached by politics. This is only one simple achievement among many others; it shows we are indeed capable of succeeding and there is no reason for not believing in ourselves. So, the faith in us would be the second step. Once we accomplish this, we will have members who are aware and willing to become active. And if we manage to provide the members with enough information, structures  that will enable them to realise their ideas while reacting to happenings in Europe, we will have an AEGEE that is more visible in political stages.

Golden Times:
Why isn’t AEGEE living up to these ideas already?
Gizem: When it comes to the question of whether AEGEE is doing enough, the picture is not really good. Still, if I didn’t believe that AEGEE can reform itself easily and reach the ideal stage, I wouldn’t candidate… What we need to do is solve our structural problems – like the existence of unnecessary bureaucracy – in a sustainable way, to be patient and believe in ourselves, the rest will follow.

Golden Times: Regarding content, with which topics should AEGEE focus? Can you tell some ideas for European projects AEGEE should do?

Gizem: AEGEE has already chosen its focuses with the Strategic Plan. What we as the board of directors should do is not to choose topics but already start working on the ways that will ensure the highest participation possible to the drafting of the next strategic plan where AEGEE will choose focuses. When it comes to ideas, my role is and will be to support the ones with great ideas. But of course, I also have some. AEGEE has enough resources and capacity to focus on civic dialogues between countries with conflicts; for instance, Armenia and Turkey. Imagine AEGEE, organising a conflict resolution training course in the city where Ararat is, with Turkish, Armenian, Azeri participants as well as participants from other side of the Europe. It would be a great achievement that can set an example for politicians who regularly fails to maintain a civilised dialogue.

Golden Times: Can you give more ideas?
Gizem: I guess I wouldn’t be happier if I see that the living library concept that puts us in direct touch with minorities is spreading all around the network! This event made me feel important and valuable as a young activist, volunteer, I felt I was a real part of the process of building a tolerant society with 500 participants! That’s why I believe that the living library should spread all around the network and make our members feel the same. Last but not the least, as an organisation striving for an integrated Europe,  AEGEE can contribute a great deal to the healthy integration of migrants into majority of the society by simply spending couple of hours with migrant children on regular basis. Having a set of trainings for them in different AEGEE cities will not only make a change in lives of these kids and contribute to the integration process, but also make AEGEE more visible that will bring along many funding possibilities. After all they are all correlated.

Golden Times: AEGEE might face financial troubles if the EU cancels its administrative grants for NGOs. What should AEGEE do? Cutting costs? Increasing revenue?
Gizem: This brings along the mentioned structural reforms. I believe that reform will bring a good solution. As this operational grant constitutes one third of our budget, it is not a simple problem to be solved only by cutting costs. We should rearrange our costs in a way that they will be investments that will bring money back. One example for this is to invest in our projects and thematic activities like EBM – a comprehensive thematic conference. Once we have thematically strong projects and events, they will bring along a lot of fundraising possibilities and many other grant possibilities. Investing is the best solution for increasing the revenue. In addition to conventional fundraising methods we have been using so far, we should also focus on alternative resources. How that can happen? Again, by using our resources, in national, regional and European context.

Golden Times: You are very much interested in politics and human rights issues, for example the conflicts in the Caucasus region and the relation of Armenia to Turkey. What can or should AEGEE do? And what should politics do?

Gizem: We always say; recipe is the civic dialogue. Almost every day, we read about or listen to certain conflicts, yet we don’t really see them. The conflicts are created in political stages to serve certain interests for certain parties and they are imposed on the society. I wholeheartedly believe that people can live in harmony regardless of their nation or race and examples of such cases do exist. Sadly, the countries you have mentioned in your question are not among them – yet. It is true that we can’t save the world, but still, organisations like AEGEE can contribute to building a peaceful society very easily.

Golden Times:
Gizem: The answer is civic dialogue and the civic dialogue is not a complex thing, it is talking, listening to, and confronting. I can proudly give you several examples that AEGEE has accomplished so far; AEGEE-Ankara and AEGEE-Yerevan has been in close cooperation with each other for quite a long time. Noth locals have a working group or a project team working on Turkish-Armenian Civic Dialogue. AEGEE-Oviedo will host the Conflict Resolution Training Course of AEGEE-Europe’s Eastern Partnership project team in September. We have organised the first Network Meeting in the Caucasus Region in December 2011. Aren’t these happenings simply amazing?  What we should do is just to keep on what we are doing while trying to include our network more. We should show our network that Summer Universities are not the only things AEGEE is successfully managing. When it comes to politics as such, politicians should realise that they have a lot to learn from us. It may sound ambitious, but it is not at all. We are able to bring people from these countries together on regular basis without any problems. We are able to talk about our problems in a civilised way, we are open to comprise, unlike many of the politicians. I strongly believe that they should get youth organisations on board if they are looking for real and sustainable solutions.

Golden Times: Let’s come to some lighter topics. You are from Antalya, a wonderful sunny place. How do you cope with living in the rainiest capital of Europe?

Gizem: I literally suffer. I have had some health problems at the beginning, but yeah, human nature can adopt itself, I do survive Brussels.

Golden Times: What was your favourite AEGEE event?

Gizem: Almost everybody who knows me can answer this question: Living Library. It will always be deep in my heart.

Golden Times: What’s your dream job after finishing AEGEE?
Gizem (smiling): Finding a position in AEGEE that pays. It has been almost five years that I became a member and  I still feel passionate about what I am doing. Once you add a little bit money to this feeling that would be the dream.  In reality, I see myself working for the United Nations, in a UN Refugee Agency or any UNICEF office. A well paid job should matter actually but it has never been a concern of mine, I have never had enough money anyways and I was still quite happy, so why do I need more? And I believe a Refugee Agency or a UNICEF office in Turkey can be places where I may have a chance to make a life of a person better, at least to some extent and that would be the dream that comes true.

Golden Times:
What hobbies do you have?
Gizem: I dance flamenco, although I don’t have much time free to practice, which is a pity. And I do enjoy cooking! I guess my CD mates do enjoy this hobby of mine as well!

Golden Times: What’s never missing in your fridge?

Gizem: Yoghurt, cheese, chocolate.

Golden Times:
How would you describe yourself in five keywords?
Gizem: There is seriously the hardest question, I asked my mother and a good friend of mine for help. Here is what they have told – of course nothing bad: warm-hearted, positive, determined, passionate, bloody idealist.

Golden Times: Anything you’d like to add?

Gizem: A big applause to everybody who was patient enough to read till here!