“You come to these events, maybe for the first time, and think ‘I’m here to learn, to meet new people, have fun…maybe I’ll go for something small’. Then before you know it you’re caught up in the energy of it all and find yourself thinking ‘I want to be a part of this, maybe I can give something more.'”
It was late one night and I was sitting, cross legged on the ground and homemade tinto de verano in hand, in a quiet Spanish street, talking with a friend, a fellow IFSA student. Apart from the small group around me, the rest of the IFSS contingent were tucked into their sleeping bags for the night, 100 odd students sprawled out on thin mats on the hard floor of the sports hall outside which we were sitting.
We were drinking to send off the outgoing IFSA President, and we were talking about the ‘IFSA spirit’. Like my fellow student, this was my first IFSS. I had come to Spain not knowing what to expect, and hoping for nothing more than to get an understanding of what this was all about, and to hopefully meet some great people along the way. Unlike her, I had not even considered the prospect that, less than one week in, I would be standing for an official position, or that I would be feeling so energised and inspired by everyone around me that I would be reconsidering my plans and priorities for the upcoming year.
But wait, I’m getting way ahead of myself here. Let me take a few steps back.
IFSA stands for the International Forestry Students’ Association. As the name suggests, it is a network of student associations from all over the world, connecting ‘local committees’ of students studying forestry or related disciplines. After hearing about it early on in my studies from a lecturer, and browsing their (slightly ramshackle) website, I had started to vocally question if we – the University of Melbourne, and my Department of Forest Ecosystem Science – were a member, and if not, why? Then, a little over a year ago, I received an email that we had just paid up our membership fee, and I took on the role as one of our uni’s two key contacts.
I met with our regional representatives in Canberra when I was studying at ANU last winter, and picked their brains as to what being a part of IFSA involved. They had both attended the big event – the annual International Forestry Students’ Symposium (IFSS) – in years gone by, but when the call came out to register for IFSS Turkey, 2012, it clashed with ISV work and I had to pass it on. At ANU we talked of wanting to get more active in Australia – the IFSA website was constantly listing events and meet ups being organised throughout the rest of the IFSA community, with the Oceania region remaining silent. But our discussions kept coming back to how, unlike Europe, we were faced with the logistical and motivational challenges of being a limited number of geographically isolated forestry schools with a declining number of students, in a country where ‘forestry’ was increasingly synonymous (to much of the public at least) with destructive logging and anti-environmental values.
And then…well, nothing. With no active student association to begin with, our local committee existed for this past year as little more than a name, and a listing on a website.
When the announcement came that IFSS 2013 was to be held in Spain, right in the middle of my European travels, I took this as an opportunity to learn more about what this whole IFSA thing was really all about, and to hopefully bring back what I’d learnt to my department at home.
And so it was that I found myself getting on yet another plane from London, emerging at the other end into the sweltering heat of Madrid. Everything was unknown – along with the practicalities of orienting myself in a new city I was still orienting myself within the IFSA world, and what it meant to be taking part in IFSS. With each new email from the Spanish organising committee I had begun to feel a little more out of my depth. Well, maybe that’s not the right phrasing, but it certainly felt like I was embarking on this thing blind (LC presentations? Auction and international night? Erm, no, was I supposed to bring a blow up kangaroo?).
Apart from the name of our hostel, a general itinerary (visit to a ‘dehesa’? general assemblies?) and the recent knowledge of the fact that I was the sole Australian in a group of roughly 100 students from all over the world, I had little idea of what the next two weeks would hold.
Looking back now, I don’t think any amount of talking with past participants, or reading of schedules, could have given me any idea of what an amazing two weeks it would be. So much happened, so much more than can be fully captured by words on this (virtual) page.
There was the itinerary organised by the Spanish OC, that took us from the mountains outside Madrid to the mountains and islands of Galicia, on ‘beach days’ and epic hikes, and recreated childhood sleepovers on an epic scale as we stayed in sports centres and school halls in tiny villages and coastal towns until making our way back to the big city once again.
There was the official IFSA business: the five plenary sessions of the General Assembly, in which we seemed to suddenly transform from a group of young students into a group of organised and motivated adults, voting on statutes and electing officials and doing all sorts of other grown up business (often with beer in hand…we were still students after all).
And then there was everything else that, while not on the formal agenda, to me formed the most important aspects of the whole thing and signified what IFSA is really about.
The many conversations over dinner or drinks, that – at times despite our best intentions – once again went back to forestry, in all its many and diverse forms all over the world.
The moments when I found myself sitting next to someone on the bus, or walking side by side with someone down the street, whom I had hardly spoken to before, and realising we shared the same interests, or that they had incredible stories or experiences to share that I could never have imagined.
Listening with interest (and some amusement) to Northern Europeans scoff at the idea of a dehesa agroforestry landscape being classified as a ‘forest’, and wondering what they would think of our Mallee landscapes…or with astonishment at hearing the strong opposition that seemingly every other country has to prescribed burning or ecological fire management, something that is such a part of forest management in Australia.
Forming an informal partnership with the three Indonesian LCs – our closest neighbours – and joining, with a vote and a resounding cheer, the new Asia Pacific region.
And of course, converting half the group to Vegemite during International Night, albeit with avocado and cheese.
There’s something quite amazing about being thrown into such a diverse group of people from all over the world, and coming out two weeks later counting 100 new friends.
I overheard someone saying something like, it is essentially only with foresters that he can walk into a big group of new people and know that he will feel comfortable. I know exactly what he meant. This might seem strange to non-forestry friends back home who think of foresters as rough old men who just want to chop all the bloody trees down, but while that stereotype may exist, it certainly doesn’t characterise any of the young foresters I’ve studied with. While we all came from different backgrounds, and had different interests and views on many things, there was something that we all had in common, that brought us together (no, I mean other than beer).
IFSA and IFSS to me are all these things – bringing people together, sharing stories and knowledge and opportunities, opening our eyes to the different ways forestry is known and understood and studied and practised all around the world (and maybe causing us to wonder what we could do differently at home).
So, where to next? That’s the question that has had me thinking since early on in IFSS. I have come away with so much – not just new friends, not just a better understanding and appreciation IFSA and an official role as liaison officer with CIFOR, but a motivation to do something more.
Motivation to get our LC, and Australia, active once more.
Motivation to really be a part of our new region, rather than a little island of inactivity on the southern border.
Motivation to work with my department while I’m still away, and go back to the university when I’m home, to try and engage our students, to make them aware of this network that I’m only just discovering now, but wish someone had told me about before.
We have our challenges – no undergraduate forestry degree, a small intake at Masters level, a largely older, often professional student cohort who only come together for two weeks at a time on campus then disperse again. And, unlike other relatively new LCs I spoke to, for us, it’s not just about creating an LC and IFSA connection, it’s building a whole new student association from the ground up.
And yet there is some promise – a new Bachelor of Science major in forestry starting next year, and the promise of support (both moral and financial) from our department, who seem as keen as me to get something going.
I have ideas (possibly too many, as is often the case with me) for my uni at home, my LO position to keep me busy and connected to IFSA, and the possibility of IFSS 2014 British Colombia to look forward to. I guess this is just part of what is meant by the IFSA spirit.