Wednesday, 8 December 2010

A Debate Displaced in Time

It has been a captivating first few months for me at SAIS Bologna after more than two decades as a foreign correspondent. This week we opened our doors to several dozen prospective candidates, and the day-long event was a reminder of what makes this job and the Bologna Center special.

A total of 39 students from 13 countries came to our annual Open Day this Monday. I had my share of secret worries before the day started. We had flagged the event on our website and even in an advertisement with a major global publication. But would those who registered show up? Wouldn’t many choose to stay home rather than travel to Bologna, which is unique all year round but more difficult, shall we say, to appreciate in the December cold?

My fears eased as candidates filed into the lobby of via Belmeloro 11. Some had travelled from London, others from Sofia or Athens. Introducing themselves to Amina and me, our guests showed the poise that is typical of SAIS Bologna students who tackle graduate school with the confidence and gusto that set them apart.

The purpose of Open Day is to give potential applicants a chance to get to know SAIS Bologna better. Compared to when I attended SAIS in 1981-83 – before Internet and email – so much more information is at a candidate’s fingertips. But we understand that the human element is an important part of our program, and Open Day is a chance to connect with the people who make up SAIS Bologna and embody its values.

Ken Keller, our director, greeted the students gathered around a large table in the 4th floor penthouse overlooking Bologna's centro storico. A chemical engineer by training, Ken is an example of the different paths that can lead to SAIS Bologna. “The Bologna Center opened 56 years ago with the aim of promoting the trans-Atlantic dialogue in its classrooms and its student life,” he said. “With the U.S. and Europe each facing a host of global challenges that can only be met by working together, that dialogue is more important than ever.”

Over the course of the day, our guests met faculty, staff and students, and asked questions about the curriculum, student life, tuition, the nuances of applying and career opportunities. Our visitors stayed with students in their apartments, ate lunch and shared an aperitivo in Giulio’s caffĂ©, then ventured into the covered streets of this medieval city.

A word on the values I mentioned: the candidates’ diverse backgrounds reflect SAIS’s commitment to a  global outlook. The interchanges gave candidates an apt foretaste of the cohesiveness that characterizes the SAIS Bologna community. The contrasting points of view expressed at the end of Prof. John Harper’s lecture on the first Gulf crisis 20 years ago captured a crucially unique aspect of SAIS: the opportunity to study for a year in Europe and a second in Washington, and in so doing to participate in what Ken Keller calls “a debate displaced in time.”

In coming posts we’ll try to communicate what makes SAIS Bologna special while engaging with prospective candidates over the application process. I welcome your comments. Tomorrow: What is in a name?

Nelson Graves