Laura Bianchi '23
Reflections from the Global Engagement Portal
[Note: the Global Engagement Portal is active through December 9, 2022, in a gold shipping container at the top of the “million dollar stairs” alongside O’Neil Library. Join us for drop-in hours! In the Spring 2023 semester it will move to BC's McMullen Museum.]
I became an IS major because I wanted to deepen my knowledge of the world and make real connections with people who live in different countries. I wrote my Common App essay about how I love to learn languages, and how a shared language can connect us in powerful ways to people with quite different backgrounds. This semester, as I took on the task of organizing the Global Engagement Portal, I felt motivated yet intimidated by the possibilities that the portal could provide. The Global Engagement Portal hosts a series of conversations on multiple topics and in multiple languages with sites all over the world. The portal itself is a large golden shipping container, transformed on the inside with a large screen and projector to enable immersive video conversations that make two spaces that are drastically far apart feel like one room.
Although I wasn’t fully sure what to expect or how best to organize these conversations, I knew that I was excited to be working on a project that embodies the things that I most enjoy about being an IS major in a very creative and ‘engaging’ way. In my eyes, there is almost nothing more fulfilling than having a genuine, energized, and interesting conversation with someone where you both come away feeling like a connection has been forged, however small the bond is.
After having “portalled” a few times now, I can say that the experience has exceeded even my highest expectations. Even though I enter the portal unsure of who or what to expect almost every time, I come away feeling refreshed, amazed, humbled, and motivated without fail. The coolest part, though, is looking around and seeing that everyone else in the session is beaming with that same feeling that I wrote my college essay about.
I kicked off my portal experience by hosting two hours of small-group conversations with Rohingya refugees living in refugee camps in the area near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Though I had read and talked about the Rohingya’s situation at some length in class beforehand, I still wasn’t fully mentally prepared for these conversations at first. Their portal was run by Shafique, who was born in a Rohingya refugee camp in the 1990s and now works to help his fellow refugees. He was very open and honest with us about the reality of the situation. I quickly realized that he seemed more comfortable answering questions that touched on tougher topics, rather than those that shied away from the harsh realities. This was something that I did not expect, but ended up being very grateful for. I’m not saying that I now feel like I can claim to relate to Shafique’s experience, but I hope that through the open dialogue in the portal encounters he was able to feel heard and feel a sense of shared humanity. After my fourth and final session with him later in the week, it was difficult knowing that I would comfortably step out onto my college campus, whereas he must hide his identity by day in order to avoid persecution in the city, and returns to a dangerous refugee camp at night. Having heard Shafique’s story, I hope to keep myself accountable for staying informed about the Rohingya refugees’ situation, and work towards preventing situations like these in the future.
Although the meetings with Shafique have been the most poignant for me, the portal has also been a great experience for furthering my interests in topics such as climate activism, artistic literary expressions, and innovative environmental practices. I hosted a session with a 13-year-old climate activist and bio-engineer from Mexico City who illuminated the portal with her drive and enthusiasm for a cause so much larger than herself; I met with friendly and inspiring beekeepers from a regenerative bio-reserve in Barbados.
The portal experience has exemplified many of the reasons I chose to be an IS major. I’m looking forward to the rest of the connections that we have lined up for this week, including an inspiring folk singer from Mexico City and poets in Nakivale, Uganda. So, if after reading this you feel pulled to have some solid conversations, learn something new about the world, or forge little bonds with someone you may never interact with otherwise, join us during the open hours we have this final week of its Fall 2022 installation.
Laura Bianchi '23