International Trainers Congress 2007 – A Breath of Fresh Air

And was it.

My flight came into Băneasa airport (which is about to close for much-needed renovation) at four on Monday morning the 16th of April. I was looking around futilely for twenty minutes for an AIESEC sign, but I saw none. I went up to the main hub to ask if there had been anyone from AIESEC, and they said no. Was this about to turn into a nightmare in the wee hours of the morning in Bucharest?

Luckily, as I returned to the terminal I saw a guy with a hand-written AIESEC sign. He introduced himself as Alex on the CC (not the only Alex on the CC) and he took me to the BMW parked outside. “They’re one of our sponsors, so they gave us these two cars for the duration of he conference.” Just another example of how LC-hosted conferences are better sponsored! We drove for about half an hour to his bloc, one of those giant grey “Communist”-era housing blocks. It was surprisingly nice and modern inside, however – leave it up to an AIESEC-related trip to break more stereotypes! I slept for about two hours in his room, and then we had some breakfast and were off to LC Bucharest’s office. I met several CC members there, hard at work, and I admired their three-room office. They had even leased a room right next door to use as a CC office for the monumental task of putting on ITC 2007. It was full of fliers, posters, huge crates of food and bottled water (with gas…ugh), and beer. Their main office was pretty impressive – not exactly spacious, even for three connected rooms, but they had a great array of stuff – sugar-cube wall, posters and flags signed from many countries from either trainees, returning SNs, or conference attendees, at least three computers, parts of the Competency Model splayed on the wall along with yearly goals and working agreements, and best of all, a small aquarium. I spent some time talking with the CC until it was time to go to the Global Village site at noon.

I had my extremely meager Global Village possessions in a small bag that my mother was very kind to send to me while I was in Barcelona, but it was pitifully insufficient. I had a nice reunion with Kyle in the Teatrul Naţional, outside of which was the Global Village site. We chose a less-prominent stall so as not to be embarrassed by such displays as South Korea’s musical ensemble or Darko’s always-colorful Macedonia stall. However, we were surprised by some unlikely saviors: the U.S. Embassy!

They had produced a box full of nice propaganda including a large paper American flag (clutch), a couple of maps (also clutch), and a lot of booklets and information on American activities in Bucharest and opportunities to work in America – very popular among college-age youth in Romania and other Eastern European countries.

Global Village turned out to be more interesting than expected, largely because of the number of Romanian youngsters coming to ask about work in America. At the time it was unusual to me that these people about to graduate with a financial degree in an extremely promising country were looking to work for three months as housemaids and fast-food restaurant cashiers just to experience life in America. I was especially concerned because I’ve read quite a bit on the BBC recently about human trafficking through work-abroad programs like the ones they utilize. Kyle, however, assured me it was all good from his conversations with Romanians on his traineeship, and several of the LC Bucharest members had been on work abroad. It was also a program like this which our beloved George from Bulgaria, also present at ITC, has used to work as a lifeguard in Myrtle Beach every summer.

We were even interviewed by state television based on our reputation for providing a lot of work abroad opportunities for Romanians, and the television interviewer kept asking questions and nodding and smiling at me to indicate that I should say things along the lines of “There are plenty of great places in the US for college students to work!” We were on national TV that night. Duncan from the UK had his picture published in the state newspaper. There was also some fairly cool Romanian rock band with a violinist playing a KISS-esque violin shaped like an “S.” There was also enough free Rockstar energy drink to rival the cocaine intake of Tony Montana, Guns N’ Roses (pre-Chinese Democracy), and the entire pornography industry combined. This was true for the entire conference.

Why all the pomp and circumstance for 120 college students to have some stuff from their country displayed on the lawn in Bucharest? Because the President of Romania, Traian Băsescu, was to speak to the entire ITC 2007 delegation that evening at Opening Ceremony in the Teatrul. Good thing we booked him that night, too – it was only three days later that he was suspended by the state parliament.

Of course he wasn’t the only presidential figure in da house – none other than Gabiza, the President-elect of AIESEC International and current VP People Development for AI, was the conference manager for ITC 2007 and a native Romanian herself.

None of this kept me from falling asleep during some of the cultural presentations, but it was cool to have such a figure as a president addressing AIESEC, which is especially relevant and large in Romania right now on the good-job side of our benefits. When he came in the theater the myriad photographers and cameramen let out a strobe-light show of flashes and everyone stood and applauded, and he had to leave in the middle of the speech of the guy who started AIESEC in Romania, when all the cameramen left as well (except one lone guy in the middle). Said AIESEC-starter then remarked “If ITC goes well enough for all of you and you do great things, then maybe next year the cameras won’t leave when he does.” A dream of AIESEC’s for sixty years.

After the Opening Ceremony, we all crowded onto the buses bound for Mamaia, three hours away on the coast of the Black Sea, which is where the conference venue was situated. A perfect situation more or less, since it was on the beautiful Black Sea shore and was largely uninhabited (and the food was really good too), although the others who did inhabit it were US military-men, which I worried would prompt questions to me from the other delegates. Luckily it did not. I got as much sleep that night as I could, knowing the kind of toll conferences can take on one’s sleep schedule.

The next morning we were introduced with some concepts that have still stuck with me and that I am still incorporating into my life’s modus operandi: “Be authentic,” referring to how we should interact together at the conference (but of course also in life) and also the concept of how circles work in the way we work together. It was used as a basis for the new revision of the Competency Model, but somehow this presentation made it all come together and make sense to me. Anytime I’m a leader of a team from now on the concept of a circle in all its forms will be at the forefront of my mind in that dangerous phrase (has been for me, anyway): “how we work together.”

Appropriate for this reason, that we started the day with personal learning. Finally, my opportunity to delve into my own self and develop how I work with myself, since I’ve never actually participated in an LDS. The theme here was “patterns” and goal-setting. Looking back over my goals, I have achieved only three but I have made great gains on the others I listed. The drive for my paradigm shift was beginning! – but I still didn’t see the pure, electrifying channel I could get on. I wasn’t disappointed (YOU CAN! gave me all the disappointment I could muster, and there were plenty of YOU CAN! delegates here expecting much better) but I wasn’t satisfied. Impatient or clairvoyant?

After evening plenary, I went with my roommate, Carlos “One time in Venezuela” Marquez, to participate in what I expected would be an ordinary Nordic circle (you’re not a level-six Thetan…er, AIESECer…if you’ve not participated in one of these cultural exchanges). To the uninitiated, in a Nordic circle (the great circle again!) everyone stands in a circle and there is a bottle of alcohol, usually a Scandinavian vodka, to pass around. The person who has the bottle (always in your left hand!) tells something important – how they are feeling (EXCELLENT!), something heavy that’s been on their mind, a sincere praise to someone in the circle, etc. – takes a hefty swig, and then with their right hand they make a hard pull-down motion with their right fist and elbow at the same time as the person to their right does so with their left fist and elbow, and both say “HUH!” simultaneously during this motion.

The person then passes (still with left hand) over to the person on the right’s left hand, and they continue. Almost off the bat, it wasn’t just “glad to be here, want to meet all of you, I thought it was cool the President was there” kind of stuff. The things people had to offer came from deep within them, and it was clear that we all were here for exactly the right reason. We expected to be challenged heftily in the coming week, and to be able to draw from and share with each other to maximize our experience and the things we would learn. Some went on soliloquies about how they were very confused in their life right now but that they were gaining renewed vision and well-being right in the circle as they heard the others speak. The most powerful moment came after one of the delegates (who would soon be a part of my team for the week) gave a particularly long soliloquy about the difficulties he had faced over the past couple of years and how he had coped and was still looking to the future positively. When the bottle reached the initator of the circle, who had one cycle earlier confessed that he had come to hate all people and was extremely discouraged with life itself at the moment due to some atrocities he had witnessed, stated emotionally that because of what we were saying and especially what my future team member was saying, he was coming again to see the good in people who want to fight against something that is unjust. He could not thank us enough. Impact experience number one down, on only the second night of seven days.

The next day began the real meat-n’-peetaters of the conference. After another session on interpersonal learning (Feedback Focus BIO: Behavior > Impact > Outcome, and no that’s not a Panic setlist), we had our first team session. For the first time we met our team, which consisted of twelve delegates and one faci. We decided on a team name (TEAM for us, though others chose names like Huggers, Q’s, Doggie Surfers, and other assorted monikers), and were given our first task (without thoroughly knowing each others’ names): a lightning-fast scavenger hunt. Various items were posted with their worth in points, and we had twenty minutes to get as many points as possible by bringing them back into the plenary room – and we also had to make up a team cheer in that time. The items ranged from a hammer and 50 seashells to (the most worthy) a hotel evacuation plan, a live dog, and a car license plate. We are AIESECers, and although my team secured none of those, at least one specimen of each was brought back, with at least one angry complaint following each. Most notable was when I was running back into the hotel and saw the hotel manager with her arms crossed staring with a grimace at a vehicle’s front, bare of a license plate. At the same time a man was coming out and fuming, “What is this! THIS IS MY CAR! This is NOT funny! This is NOT a game!” He was wrong on the last two points.

Then began the real stuff. Nadya, our excellent faci, explained to us the premise that was to come. We had 48 hours (really much less, because much of that time was allotted for other sessions and things like sleeping) to come up with a four-hour session on personal leadership. At the end of that 48 hours, we would be in Bucharest back at the university, and for the ten teams of 12 people each, there were 500 Romanian university students who had signed up for International Training Day 2007. The biggest international training event in Romania.


I put my name out there to be chosen as our conference manager, and I was selected. I thought it wouldn’t be such a big deal. We started out throwing out ideas for what to include in our session – intro and closing, “Wear Sunscreen” video, break into groups, “What is personal leadership?” – cliché stuff for AIESECers. Things started to get stressful, though, when I was trying to establish some vague timing guidelines which we could then split up and refine, while everyone else was trying to take it from start to finish. We all recognized, though not verbally, that we weren’t working together as well as we could at the end. Couple this with the revelation that one of the members of our group who was not so good with English was crying in her room with frustration. I was heavily reminded by one of the more experienced members of the team that this made it _my_ responsibility, as conference manager (and also as someone who spoke Spanish in this case), to comfort her and bring her back into the team. The clock ticked onward.

Carlos from Mexico, whom I knew from YOU CAN!, approached me. He has proven influential on me because he was the first to get me to realize how non-U.S. Americans think of themselves as Americans (of the New World), in a different sense than U.S. citizens think of themselves as Americans (note that in Spanish there is a word, estadounidense, which means American as in “United-Statesian,” where no such word exists in English). He asked me, “Are you finding it hard to work with the Europeans?” “Yes,” I replied. “I am getting so frustrated!” he continued, “I think it’s a difference in the mode of thought of Americans and Europeans. For us, let’s say we were going to write an essay. What would you do? You would write a rough draft first, and then follow it up with a second draft, and a third, until you have something worked out. But here, they want to argue out every small detail and leave everything perfect before they start on something new!” It was an important insight for me to have at this juncture, as tomorrow was an extremely important day in terms of making the agenda and finalizing our roles. And then Ahmed broke out the shisha and it all went to hell.

The next day, I intended to sleep through breakfast and get an extra hour’s sleep so I could concentrate…when I was awaken at noon by TEAM, who proceeded to jump on my bed to rouse me from sleep. Although doubtless the several extra hours of sleep were good, I missed a pretty important session called “Pimp my Training” in which the facis would help us with parts of our session we were not so strong on. Nonetheless, I charged through the day’s task of leading the completion of the agenda by stating at the beginning that we would start out with the American way of work (create a general, vague time block of assignments) and then wind up with a European way of working (split up, refine sessions, then come together and smooth them out). It was taken to well, and we stuck to our timings – and I also did what I could to better incorporate Lorena from Spain and Claudio (!) from Italy into the conversation though the rest of us may have been talking a bit too fast. It was during our conversations about how to arrange the agenda on this afternoon that I first noticed the amazing gains that we were all making personally, and how we were coming remarkably close as a team. It turned from a frustrated reluctance to concede to others’ opinions to building on each other and finding places to fit something new. It was enough to make my heart start to rush for a little bit, and it felt like this was a part of a movie where some nice swelling music was playing and the camera was circling moderately slow around the circle as it caught people leaning forward, eagerly giving what they could and listening. TEAM was beginning to come into its own.

After dinner, we all still had bits to work on together, especially me with the PowerPoint-heavy introduction and closing. While arranging all the stuff together, Gabiza was walking around checking out what people were doing, and we struck up a conversation about the Middle East and America when I mentioned that some of the members of LC Atlanta had met her at MENALDS. During the very time we were talking about how relevant AIESEC is in the Middle East, some of the US militarymen came walking down the stairs on their way to the lobby. I remarked, “Here we are with our mission, and who knows what they are about to do, possibly in the same region? Are we working fast enough?” The question remains unanswered: Are we working fast and efficient enough? Does AIESEC need oiling and some structural changing? Does AIESEC need its own Change Agents?

The bus on the way to Bucharest the next morning was largely spent sleeping, so we could have as much rest as possible for the Big Event. Also because we had to wake up at six.

Although I was very excited about what was coming up, I was also quite nervous – especially after we had our nice reception in the Aula Magna and walked out to see the 500 Romanian students in question.

And then Lorena pointing to the the stone banister and saying “I want to do it (slide down the banister)” in her Spanish accent just made me laugh really hard.

We came into the room and arranged and rearranged and rearranged again the room to accommodate the “beamer” (projector), spaces for flipchart posters, and of course all the people. Taking into account what Williams had once taught me about how to make the perfect session – “stimulate all five senses” – and remembering the Circles of Influence, I had arranged a game at the suggestion of one of the TEAM members where they would get into two concentric circles and meet everyone in the other circle quickly. After the expectation setting and other such issues, the other facis took over.

In the end, I believe we did a damn, damn good job – except for the evils of technology, which threatened to malfunction right before the intro session started, and then successfully derailed the closing with the “Wear Sunscreen” video taking five minutes to start up and the “experience leadership” powerpoint coupled to Blind Melon’s “Change” not functioning at all before time ran out. I ended like we had intended – “It’s up to you!” – but still felt dissatisfied with the all-important ending due to Teknos, god of me hating Georgia Tech and also anything that has electronics, intervening to scramble our humanly eating of the Tree of Knowledge.

But everyone had great things to say. They thanked us repeatedly, sincerely, and they are starting a Yahoo! group to stay in touch. On the ITC 2007 Facebook group also people who participated in International Training Day joined just to thank us for the job we did.

It wasn’t really until we returned to Mamaia that we realized just what a significant thing we had accomplished, and it finally clicked for me then the big difference: we had accomplished something. This wasn’t learn-about-sales-and-take-it-back-to-your-LC, this was create a team environment AND a session from scratch and then deliver it to impact 50 Romanian students. The difference was clear. Not only had I and all the others at ITC learned by doing – not even easily guided, but really quite independently with great autonomy – but we had impacted others in the process. THIS was the key – this IS the key. Learn by doing.

Don’t learn about how to make sales calls at conference – make sales calls at conference.
Don’t join an MC member’s session on effective mentorship – get a learning partner for the duration of the conference, and for the future.
Don’t listen to your MC VP PD rattle on about the Competency Model – get in teams, identify strong and weak places for the model in your LC or in general in your national network, and implement real, hard changes to the structure right then and there at the conference. Then run sessions the next day about various stages of the AIESEC Experience for people in those stages.
Don’t look at a PowerPoint presentation about the new IT systems – register all your new members and put up your profile on-site. Then tear into your MC VP IS with demands for a wiki and nomadlife blog-linking, and don’t let up until you’re part of the team working out what the wiki will work like later that day. Make sure it gets implemented – the opposite has happened before.
Don’t say you think the MC should incorporate open-source thought into the way your national network works – get an interested team together to hold a three-hour interactive and legislative session on cutting-edge thought trends and how they can benefit AIESECers and the network itself, complete with CEOs from startups or organizations like the Long Now Foundation. Make sure that one gets implemented too.
Don’t talk about Salaam traineeships – make sure each national conference has a quota of Salaam trainees present to give a presentation (and of course a Traineeship Power Hour).

Don’t talk about the revolution.
Live the revolution.

That night was, needless to say, a celebratory one for everybody. The highlight was Gabiza dancing Bebot – at IC this one will be more popular than the shag in the 1940s.

The next day actually started out on a low note (for those in the know, i.e. engineers). It was a day where we would have externals come in and in the morning plenary Gabiza gave a session on the AIESEC Learning Environment. This was already kind of a question mark, because I’m pretty sure we had all read about this in the Competency Model, so I guessed she was only doing it for the externals. Then she went into a section about global change over time – global warming was on there of course but so was the concept that the entirety of society would fracture in ten years along community, religious, and moral lines, that nanotechnology would be more or less commercially ubiquitous within ten years, and the kicker – that we would achieve zero-point energy within ten years (hint – zero-point energy is found next to the money tree). At this one, Kyle and I could only look at each other and shake our heads. After the session he put it best – “I hate it when management kids try to talk about science!” It served only to make me surer that new, better ways of thinking had to flow fast through the network and fundamentally change many things about it. I also theorize that this is why AIESEC Atlanta is always at a bit of odds with our national direction – because we have a completely different, engineering-based and analytical mode of thought.

In the same vein, I had several conversations with people from different backgrounds, probing about their reasons for joining AIESEC. I had a general idea of what the outcome would be before I asked them, but I wanted to make sure my sentiments were correct. My most interesting conversation was with Marc from Côte d’Ivoire, who confirmed my belief that most people from “corrupt” or “developing” countries like those in the Middle East-North Africa, Africa, and several AP countries regions (and from my experience in Mexico also people in that region as well) join AIESEC with a considerable interest in staying in their country, becoming a leader (a real Change Agent), and helping to change the bad things. I also confirmed (again, not totally, but as a general system of interest) that people from the European countries generally join to be insured a good job when they leave AIESEC, usually in a nice, cozy office position. Those of us from the Americas tend to join so we can expose ourselves to other cultures and develop ourselves with new ways of thinking and talking with people from different backgrounds, so we will be more highly developed people when we leave AIESEC and look for our life’s way after we graduate. Of course, there are elements of each bit in each person’s reason for joining, but these are what I have perceived from conversations as the “number one” reason for these demographics to join. I couple this with AI’s general recruiting emphasis on the European reason for joining: get a great job with a great established company. To me, this is not what will create a change agent, because such established companies generally aren’t down with living the revolution. Along with our infrastructural changes, our change in vision has to be one that manages to appreciate each aspect of joining the network and emphasizes it in the right way in both recruiting and helping people through their AIESEC Experience. I think that’s kind of controversial (especially because of the power of our business partners) but we won’t be creating many Change Agents that live the revolution if they just get into upper management of ABN Amro or Petrom when they graduate.

Thankfully, the evening included the kind of direct action feedback for the network I hoped we’d have. As we sat around in circles in the World Cafe setup, discussing the feedback for ITC, people were clicking on these same ideas. The last part called for three specific steps that ITC can bring to change the network. If I recall correctly, my circle had “conferences based on ITC’s learning-by-doing-and-impact model,” “creating an active network of facis like the IS Musketeers,” and, frankly, I don’t remember the third. But they promised they would take them all into account for the output!

That night, Gabiza changed the agenda to cut out a good bit of the next day and have the internal Global Village all during the night, with Closing Ceremony on the beach for the sunrise. That was a good call.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to enjoy too much of Global Village (which was crazy for which part I did participate in) because I was finishing up my International Congress 2007 in Turkey Congress Committee Teamsters application – fingers still crossed on that one.

The Closing Ceremony, however, was perfect. It was kind of cold and windy, but there was music, and we sang along, and the emotional closing because we had all really produced and changed so much together. It was contrasted so much with the end of YOU CAN!, which was kind of like a shove past the finish line, although it would be sad to leave everyone. Here it was like “the band” breaking up, going their separate ways, waiting for their blurb during the credits telling you “Where are they now?” But because of each other – specifically because of what we achieved together – those subtitles won’t be anecdotes of failure. Our command of ourselves and our environments has shifted markedly, we have met people much wiser than ourselves, and we have witnessed something new about everyone we have met, old and new. “What ifs?” are now non-existent for many of us. There is no height that is unreachable. All of this is vested in the fact that we are the new trainers, the holders of the Way, but we’re not here to teach you. We’re here to help you live the revolution. As it is said, “It’s up to you.”