"Virtual" is My Reality: 20 Years of iEARN Conferences

Cathy Healy
Board Member Emeritus
Budapest 1996 Dont Know Why It Says 1994

A faded red paper tulip from an iEARN conference sits in a vase in my bedroom. Ruty Hotzen (Daffodils and Tulips project) handed out the flowers to honor Arab students in East Jerusalem who planted tulips for an important commemorative occasion when Jewish students were restricted because of a religious holiday.

Betty Burgos iEARN Suriname Coordinator And Cathy In Median At Fez Morocco

Who knew? This is why I keep the tulip in sight. When I read newspapers in the morning, I need to remember the stories I hear every July when I spend a week with idealists who are making good things happen, regardless. And every teacher everywhere knows what “regardless” means.

For more than 20 years, I have organized my vacations around iEARN’s gathering. When I signed up for my first conference, I expected to meet some interesting people in an intriguing place (Budapest) at an affordable price, including that (as an educator) it was a tax deduction. As hoped, I found nothing but positives and also, unexpectedly, discovered this was an incredible, unique opportunity to understand what was happening someplace.

If I’d been on a tour to Hungary, or if I’d traveled there on my own, how would I have met locals, let alone have conversations that could continue over several days? IEARN conferences are structured for that to happen. They are put on by volunteer teachers who recruit regional teachers and students to attend with the goal of getting to know teachers from elsewhere. The point is to talk together, present best practices, find partners for projects, sightsee together and get it.

Over the years, I’ve gained unique understandings of such places as Moscow; Osaka; Brasília, San Juan, PR; Enschede, Netherlands and Cape Town, where I wept with the principal of a township high school when he learned that the new computers in his lab had been stolen, despite double fencing and multiple locks. In Budapest, the principal had told us how he carried home discs of students’ project work to relay to the iEARN network. When one of the Australian teachers returned home, she and her students raised money to ship refurbished computers to his school. At the following conference, we had rejoiced when Philemon Kotsokoan (country coordinator in South Africa) told us how the students lined up by the (old, slow) computers to send their reports. Now the brand-new computers were gone and we all grieved.

Not all stories are uplifting, but they are real.

iEARN-USA member Cathy Healy with members of the iEARN Community.

iEARN-USA member Cathy Healy with members of the iEARN Community.

And really, flying halfway around the world for a conference means you’re probably hoping for some adventures along with professional development. It’s not predictable what we’ll experience in Morocco, but here’s a glimpse from the past:

  • Being chased in the dark by medieval devils with pitchforks loaded with gigantic sparklers (and dancing under the sparks). That’s how the villagers in Callus, north of Barcelona, concluded our week with them.
  • Holding fresh mint under our noses at the stinky leather dying vats in the medina at Fez, Morocco when the temperature hit 120 F. (Laugh along in my short video: The Mall of Malls.)
  • Not just reading about SARS in Asia, but being dis-invited at the last minute from a Japanese resort town in the mountains. After all, we were a mob from about 70 countries. Incredibly, Yoko Takagi, iEARN-Japan coordinator, persuaded the Governor of Osaka to let us meet on a nearby island. Every morning, we used gift thermometers to self-report our temperatures.

Hopefully, you and I will meet in Marrakech, Morocco this July and intertwine our lives. I’ll be rooming with Violeta Tsoneva from Sofia, Bulgaria. She met my nephew when he attended the youth summit in Moscow, an Eastern European major in college. When he graduated, Violeta found him a job, an apartment and a potential girl friend. When new Bulgarian laws put a kibosh on that, iEARN-Macedonia friends, Mimoza and Jove Jankulovski, helped DJ locate there for a year. And guess who else helped him in Skopje?! iEARN-Argentina’s Adriana Vilela, who happened to be there working with Jove and Mimoza on a World Links for Development grant.

What is the impact of the iEARN conferences on my life? For more than 20 years, “virtual” is my reality.

Cathy Healy is an innovator, connector and team-builder in the field of global education. The former editor of the National Geographic Intranet, as well as former Reuters Digital Vision Fellow at Stanford University, Cathy serves on the board of iEARN-USA and is Special Liaison for the Alliance of IEARN-USA and Partners of the Americas.