Interview conducted by Lina Mansour.

Marcella Zandonai is a Euroculture alumni (cohort 2015-2017) from Trento, Italy. She spent her first semester at the University of Göttingen, Germany, and continued her Euroculture studies in Bilbao, Spain. After doing some volunteering, travelling in New Zealand, and working for a local NGO in Trento, she joined Euroculture again in 2020 as the Assistant Coordinator at the University of Göttingen. You can read more about Marcella’s work here.

1. Tell us a little bit about the conference and its objective!

The International Youth Conference was created 19 years ago from a local Macedonian NGO called Youth Alliance Krusevo. Krusevo — the city where the conference is held — is one of the highest cities of the Balkan region (1350 meters) and is a very nice location, where nature and culture meet each other. The main objective of the conference is to gather “the most active young people from 16 countries to work together for the European future of the Western Balkans Region”. This year’s topic was “European values for the future for SEE region – Regional Transformation”. The main focus of the Conference was on the European integration of the Western Balkans and it had 5 thematic areas:

  1. Regional Transformation
  2. Securing the European future of the region
  3. Youth-led transformation of the integrative politics of the region
  4. Sustainable and digital transformation of the region
  5. How much does the future cost?

The Conference was divided into three days of frontal presentations on the five thematic areas and two days of group work and brainstorming to come up with concrete policies: one for each area.

2. What were your expectations before going. Were they met?

I actually never had the opportunity to be invited to such an interesting and international event/conference. Therefore, after having applied I thought that I was not going to be easily chosen. The two main characteristics I had to show them were: 

  1. the fact that I was coming from the Western part of Europe and I was aware of its cultural, political and historical background;
  2. the fact that I am working for an international MA, Euroculture at a university – considered relevant when it comes to youth.

Shortly after I applied, I found myself euphorically staring at my monitor, reading through the email that was just inviting me to be a fully-funded participant for the 19th Youth Conference. After having read the details of the conference and the place, I started thinking about travelling to a whole new country and having the possibility to meet people that I have never met before despite the geographical vicinity. Moreover, I did not expect to be the only Italian and one of the few Western European participants. We were, in fact, just a German, a French, and me to represent the Western European Countries and to be invited as “external observers”. When I got to know about it I had some doubts about my actual capacity to add some value to the event. Nonetheless, when the five days ended I felt so happy and relieved because my role was as important as everyone else’s and because I felt I could offer my external point of view during the two brainstorming and policy-making days. In addition, I met so many nice and like-minded people; I also got to know about many small details on the Balkan political, geographical, and cultural history as well as their current situation.

3. As a Euroculture alumni, did this give you any advantage and knowledge? 

I actually really appreciated the fact that Euroculture gave me the possibility to open my knowledge and to be therefore able to have a constructive conversation just about anything. For example, when it came to the “environment and sustainability” topic I found myself fiercely defending the ancestral indigenous knowledge when it comes to climate change and dealing sustainably with natural resources. And funnily enough at that moment, I realized that I was just repeating my MA thesis which was stating the exact same thing: trying to raise awareness on European indigenous knowledge and climate change! This point of view of mine was highly appreciated and the same happened when I also tried to insert Roma people in the discourse, as I remembered from one of our IP trips when we went to the Roma People Museum in Brno, Czech Republic.

4. What did you enjoy the most throughout your time? (tell us a bit about North Macedonia)

I really loved North Macedonia, especially for its way of being different but geographically nearby at the same time. I loved meeting people from Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Greece, since I had no clue about their history or cultural traits. I actually realized there how far – in media terms – we are from them; we, unfortunately, have no idea about their typical food, their traditions, their national days, their struggle for peace and their youth voices who badly want to free their own countries from corruption. And oh, how similar we are! Funnily enough, I found out that one of the main dishes in North Macedonia is vegan and delicious! I also had the opportunity of trying out the typical Krusevo Lucum (local sweets), hike in the forest surrounding the small town, speak in English with some locals, pet some cute stray dogs and cats and cruise around Skopje during a sunny autumn morning. But the best of the best was of course finding some people with whom I had the possibility to eat, laugh, and dance. Despite our colorful and mixed backgrounds, we became one thing for a week; a cohesive group willing to change things for the better.

6. What would you say to other Euroculture students to recommend them to participate in the conference in the future?

First of all, to our current first-semester students I would say to pay particular attention to Prof Damianovski who is going to be our host at the end of November for one of our Eurocometence I sessions. There, they will have the possibility to discuss with him the integration process of the Western Balkans and the current youth struggle for countries free from corruption.
And to the other students, I can only advise them to apply and apply because these kinds of things not only open up your mental horizons but also help you to strengthen your network and to become more aware of your own neighbors!

A huge thanks to Louise, Mihail, Simona, Marija, Alex and to Anelija, who brought me to the conference!

Image credits: Marcella Zandonai

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