Matej Bílik is familiar to most of us at BISLA. He graduated only last year, and has remained an active member of our community ever since, helping out with Orientation Week or just popping by for a chat. We have asked him to tell us more about his time at BISLA and what he has been up to since leaving the college.
Thank you for agreeing to do this, Matej. Our first question is: what is your role in the Student Council for Higher Education (SRVŠ)? Since you were working there even while you were studying at BISLA, we were wondering what you are doing there now? What’s your role?
My role in the SRVŠ started two years ago, when I was elected by the academic senate at BISLA for the position of delegate. Every university or higher education institute in Slovakia gets to have at least two delegates in the SRVŠ, one for the academic senate and one for every two thousand students, so BISLA has two. This is where I started. At first I just represented BISLA at the general assemblies and voted for some documents, but very soon I became close with some people who were part of the executive board of SRVŠ. After half a year, together with the EU student union and Hungarian student union I was writing a project for SRVŠ which focused on the quality of higher education. This project started last September, and this is what my role was until now. In addition, last October I was elected to be vice president of Foreign Affairs, replacing Dániel Cséfalvay, who was also a student at BISLA and my classmate. So we passed on the tradition of BISLA holding on this role and representing all Slovak students abroad. Even though I’m not officially a student anymore- I’m taking a gap year. I’m still representing Slovak students in a number of international meetings, and I'm also working with the rest of the presidency on various issues within Slovakia, ranging from mental health to student housing, dormitories or the Covid-19 situation, which is a huge topic right now. It’s fascinating work and I learned a lot over these two years about how education works in terms of policy and what various parties do, what are their goals and motivations to lobby for certain things. It’s a fascinating world of politics and academia.
That’s great, it sounds very interesting. Could you tell me the reason you decided to join SRVŠ? Did you always want to join?
Already in my first year I was trying to get in, but I was not elected. But I started to get to know the organisation, I went to a number of events even before I was elected, so I already knew some people there. Then I was elected. I didn’t know what it encompasses, it’s difficult and the relationships are not always the best. It’s a stressful environment and very time demanding, but even with all these drawbacks I’m still motivated because I see that I am able to do something useful. And there is a huge opportunity right now, for example with the new higher education law, completely changing how higher education institutions are financed, how they are accredited, basically the whole system is changing, and I’m right now in a spot where I could influence it. This is a position that I want to keep and I want to make sure I use it well. Hopefully talk a lot with students about what they think. This is maybe something that I am not always doing, and I think I need to spend more time with the students, just to listen to their concerns. I want to make sure that their opinion is reflected in the new framework within which higher education institutions are going to work in Slovakia.
Well, that’s very inspiring. What were the major projects you were working on and what were the ones you enjoyed the most? You mentioned one, but was there anything else you focused on during your time there?
The last one I really enjoyed was a student mental health week, there were very interesting discussions and we are right now holding talks and discussing the issue even more. I learnt a lot about this topic and I never expected that this is gonna be the area that I will focus on. It was a small thing but it was significant. We also did a huge thing about Covid-19 and its impact on students. This is something that I am very proud of. I did most of the analysis and I spent days working with the data, trying to figure out what it means. We formulated several suggestions and we can already see that universities do some of the things we have recommended. They saw the results, and those results were very negative because schools could not provide education in the online form. It took them weeks to figure it out, but we already see that the second semester is much better than the first one. So I’m happy about this.
It’s always great to see that your work actually has an impact on others, that your suggestions are implemented. We’ve heard that you are connected with the Liberal Herald. Could you tell us more about it, are you a volunteer there, are you working there? Could you also describe what is Liberal Herald for those who don’t know?
I will go the other way around. Liberal Herald is a conference organised by BISLA. It’s an academic conference, where people are supposed to present papers on different topics. Even I contributed to the conference with my own paper. I think it was in my second year. So, this is also an opportunity for students from BISLA to get their work published.
In spring, together with three other classmates, we decided to organise an online conference during lockdown, just for fun. We came up with “The World After The Pandemic” conference, which took place in May 2020. I was mostly responsible for the technical things. This is also what I’m helping the Liberal Herald with. They moved to the virtual area, so I’m figuring out all the technical details. This would be my primary work but I’m also in touch with Dagmar and James’s work, who are right now the main organisers. The three of us are working together. We helped to select the participants and we made sure that everything falls into place. But it’s gonna be fun, and I cannot wait for the Liberal Herald to happen.
What is this year’s conference about, what will be the main topic?
The conference is on ‘Stories, Histories and Memories’ and it will take place on November 20-21. It will be online, but it will be interdisciplinary as it does not specify one particular field but tries to combine different perspectives. Everything from sociology, political science, philosophy, even economics, it’s quite diverse. There is going to be a number of panels with the people who submitted their papers, few keynotes and something that we for now call a roundtable. It will offer a space for a number of experts from all around the world to contribute to the discussion. We will talk a lot about reconciliation, dealing with conflicts and how we process it into memory, and how memories are created. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I saw the list of contributors and their works, and think they will generate a lot of interesting discussions, and it really is something people should come and join.
We are looking forward to it. You are also working for the Slovak Accreditation Agency and Institute for Active Citizenship. Could you tell us more? How did you get there, what are you doing there, and how do you manage to do so many things at the same time?
It takes a lot of self-discipline, it is hard when you are stuck at home. Of course, it’s not easy to keep everything in check and sometimes I work crazy hours, but I was expecting it to be a lot of work. I have my primary job and I have two-three activities that are kind of on the side and I am helping a few organisations with some of their work, but it’s mostly within reasonable hours. It’s still manageable, but I would not like to work like this all my life. I will slow down a bit later on. But right now I’m here and I see these opportunities and I just don’t want to miss out on them, I just want to explore them and try to make as much as I can of my time. I am new at many of the things I am doing, so there is a lot of space for improvement. Even though I am not at school I am learning actually quite a lot, especially skills that will be valuable later in life.
This actually leads right to the next question. What is your plan for the future? Do you plan to go to university after this year, or do you want to work?
I want to go to university, I miss the lectures, sitting there and just listening to someone else talking. It’s a very comfortable space and I’m looking forward to going back to school. I am planning to go back next year. I hope it will be in person. And later in life… I have no idea what is going to happen. I see the world right now as full of opportunities and I’m sure even more are coming. At some point I will go and work, but there is also some space maybe to try something in academia. Maybe I will really like it and I will continue further with my studies, not just my Master’s but also a PhD. I will see how it goes.
Do you have a concrete idea of what you would like to study, at what university? Or is it a secret? I don’t want to push you to say anything you don’t want to, of course.
I will most likely continue with something that I studied at BISLA. So it will be in social studies and humanities, but I don’t have it sorted out yet. There is a space to do something more practical - in terms of public policy - but also to go more academic. Either way, it will follow what I was doing at BISLA. Maybe adding certain elements, maybe even combining with what I’m doing now in educational policy. I think that there are not enough people in Slovakia who are well founded in the topic, so there is space in the market for it. Education is something that will not become less valuable, it will always be important, so you will always need people who study the topic in-depth and propose some good measures to make sure education is working for everyone.
It sounds great, I will keep my fingers crossed. The last question would be a little bit of looking back into the past. What did you appreciate the most about BISLA?
I think there would be three things. At BISLA I found out that I enjoy learning. It’s not automatic and a lot of people actually hate going to school, but for me it was the exact opposite. Secondly, there were quite a few people that pushed me, they tried to help me to achieve my dreams. For instance, in my second year, Dagmar pressuring me lightly to submit my paper to a number of conferences. And thanks to that, I actually visited a few of them and presented my work. It was a great experience and it would not have happened without her. It was not only her, there were of course many others that created space for us to do something if we wanted to. We received good education, therefore it’s our responsibility to use that education not only for our own enrichment but also to enrich other people. Not enrich in the fiscal sense, but maybe in a discussion. That would be my second thought. And lastly, it was amazing to be a part of a very good community and a great year of students. We were really taking care of each other and even though it was sometimes hard, we were able to push through, survive and enjoy it quite a lot on the way. I am really grateful for this, I probably would not have met these people if not for BISLA. I’m really glad I met each and every one of them.
This is a really beautiful idea to end this interview, so once again, thank you for your time, Matej.