Lessons learned from a student conference in Colombia

APAGS director gives advice on bridging cultures, building networks and making the most of participation at international conferences.

By Nabil El-Ghoroury, PhD

In my role as the director of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS), I attended the IV Congreso Latinoamericano de Estudiantes de Psicología (COLAEPSI; The Fourth Congress of Latin American Students of Psychology) in Bogotá, Colombia, May 14-17, 2013. This was the second COLAEPSI congress I had attended; in October 2011 I attended the Third Congress in Quito, Ecuador. Andrea Sarmiento, the student organizer at the Universidad de San Buenaventura, Bogotá, contacted APAGS in November 2012 asking for financial support for their meeting, and APAGS was happy to donate $1000 to the event in addition to sending me as a representative to their meeting.

In attending this meeting I was able to serve as an ambassador to Latin American students. I gave a presentation titled “Opportunities and Resources: What APA Offers,” which provided a brief overview of APA as well as the resources available to the public and to APA’s members and international affiliates. In particular, the session highlighted APA products and resources: APA PsycNET, which has over 32,000 articles in Spanish in its PsycINFO database; journals and books, such as the APA Style Manual in Spanish; the APA Help Center, which has a Spanish website; the APA Annual Convention; the Office of International Affairs and the APAGS Office.

Nabil El-Ghoroury (right) with Andrea Sarmiento Parada, Andrea Bernal and Maicol Yesid, congress organizers and students from Universidad de San Buenaventura, Bogotá.Traditional Colombian dancers performing at the congress.

Here are a few of the lessons I learned at the meeting in Bogotá:

  • Practice your Spanish. Most of the attendees did not speak English, so it’s important to know that if you want to really participate in a conference then you need to do your best to speak the language. I am fortunate to be fluent in Spanish, but the audience was very forgiving of my occasional (perhaps frequent) errors, and they would graciously help me out if I could not find the right word in Spanish. However, I found one session particularly difficult to follow because I did not understand one important word in the title. It was only afterwards that I learned what the word “desempeño” means in English: “performance.” Next time, I’ll download a good Spanish translation app for my phone to figure out those words while the session is going on.
  • Say cheese. Lots of photos are taken at these conferences, and I made it a point to pose for a photo for anyone who asked me. As a speaker from the United States and as a representative of APA, I was seen as an honored guest, and many people wanted to get a snapshot.
  • Taste everything. In Latin American culture, food is very important. When I was offered any food, I always said thank you and ate it. Most of the time it was delicious, and I was glad to have tried it. I occasionally found some things I didn’t like, but it’s always important to show your appreciation by trying the food your hosts offer.
  • Bring gifts. At these events there are always a few key organizers, and it’s meaningful to bring them small tokens of appreciation. For this trip, I brought Spanish versions of the APA Style Manual and a few boxes of Godiva chocolates. The hosts were incredibly grateful for these gifts.
  • Enjoy the cultural event. These congresses often have cultural activities, and COLAEPSI was no exception. Here they had a wonderful dance performance with traditional Colombian dress and routines. My favorite was a sequence where they danced a sword fight!
  • Enjoy the coffee. Some of my favorite moments included sitting with the congress organizers at a little coffee house outside the venue. A bit of cappuccino and a little conversation go a long way in learning about different cultures and building bridges between communities.

Attending an international conference is an excellent way to practice your foreign languages, learn about different cultures and represent the United States in another land.