In 2014, AAU met Kamila Suchomel. She’s the living definition of bubbly, but turns into a serious intellect on a dime when talking about international humanitarianism and development, and has possibly been the most involved AAU community member in the school’s history.

While completing her MA in International Relations and Diplomacy, she sat on Student Council and was the AAU President's assistant. Upon her graduation in 2016, she started working with AAU’s marketing department for a year until just recently. Between coming back from an academic conference in Barcelona and setting sail to her next chapter’s destination of Montreal (where she will be the Alumni Ambassador for Canada-East), I got to ask her a few questions about her AAU experience and her first steps on the global academic stage.

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Your first memory or impression of AAU?

It was just after my first day I think that I posted on Facebook: “I love my new school.” I’m pretty sure it was a reaction to having, in the span of just one day, discussed the development of education in Peru with someone who’d actually worked in this area and also to having participated in another nerdy conversation about food security in Africa.

I also vividly remember my first class in Advanced Research Methods with Pelin Ayan. I entered with a distaste for anything theoretical from my previous school (we just had to memorize information without really knowing what the point was) and after just fifteen minutes of Pelin’s class it was like someone had turned a light bulb on in my brain about the relevance and the “why” of theory and I wanted to go and retake one of the most despised (by everyone) theories classes of my bachelor’s. Now I revel in theory.

If you had to teach a class at AAU, what would it be?

I’m not sure if I can be really specific, as I always want to encompass so much in anything I do, but it would be some combo of international development studies, humanitarianism, visual politics, and communication.

Canadian stereotype you’re excited to experience?

Umm, I’m really not sure if I have any stereotypes about Canadians other than they apologize a lot. Actually, poutine is supposed to be some signature Quebecoise dish that I’m very apprehensive about because it just seems like a culinary disaster, but maybe it will be good?

Last month, you presented her MA thesis „The Moral Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid: Visual Representation in Humanitarian Imagery and its Implications“ at the 11th Pan-European Conference on International Relations. What has the conference has been like?

Ever since my paper was first accepted, I didn’t believe it and really thought there must have been some mistake. The whole week prior to the conference I had an upset stomach every morning, and I had severe imposter syndrome the night before. “How could I have been accepted on the basis of just an MA thesis?! Everyone else has so much more research experience! Then when I started speaking and watched the expressions across the audience, I realized that the people who select your paper and who go to the panel are genuinely interested in your work, and that’s really encouraging. It’s not like in class when you write papers just to get a grade and half the class isn’t paying attention to your presentation. At a conference, you pick which panels you want to attend because you are interested in the topics and it’s all about a friendly and supportive exchange of ideas and constructive criticism to help the ideas stand in the broader academic world. Yes, I’m definitely still really intimidated by all those snippets of super specialized academic conversation you hear at a conference, but if you get over the anxiety and check out some panels then you’ll find yourself madly taking notes about all the interesting ideas people have, and also making friends over your research. 

What inspired your thesis topic?

You know, never ask an academic such a complex question if you’re looking for a brief response. You’ll get a literature review, some theory, an analysis, and a conclusion leading you to further research. :-D

To try and put it simply, I have a background in international development and I’m interested in human rights. From the beginning I wanted to critically assess what I believe is a western-centric approach to humanitarianism and development, the results of which cannot be sustainable in the long-term as regards benefitting the communities and people on the receiving end. From wanting to address everything, Daniela (my supervisor) and I finally whittled it down to looking at imagery utilized in humanitarian communication and how humanitarian aid recipients, i.e. “victims,” are represented and what this implies. The visual is really pervasive in our everyday lives and sometimes it’s a primary informative medium that leads to the formation of perceptions and subjective “truths,” thus potentially affecting global societal relations. In short, something as simple as a photograph can be really powerful.

Something surprising you learnt from it?

I became more critically aware of the power of visual mediation in my own life. A lot of people probably don’t realize how influential imagery really is. Public reactions to images also say a lot about where we place value. I came across a photograph of a refugee baby in a camp where one of the adults around it was holding a smartphone. The comments on the photo were ones of disgust because of the phone, stating that the phone should be sold to feed the baby. But if you take a moment to think about the situation the people are in, something like that might not be so simple. Who are you going to sell a smartphone to in a refugee camp? Can you even use cash in the camp? What if that phone is your only connection to the family you left behind? A smartphone is seen to signify wealth, but just because someone has one, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have the means to achieve their primary needs in that given moment in time. There is such lack of critical reflection on what people see.

Tell us about your research project/scholarly internship in Zambia.

Having the chance to experience practically what you’re learning about in theory is always rewarding. The internship was funded through Mendel University in Brno, where I did my bachelor’s, and it consisted of a group of students and professors going to Zambia for one month to get more hands-on knowledge about international development. I had never been to Africa before and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I ended up learning one of my most valuable life lessons there. Up until almost the last week, I was hopeless about development even being possible because all the issues seemed so complex and there is so much to be looked at and considered. It’s really overwhelming. But then we travelled to meet a small remote community and the village leaders told us their story. They had simply wanted to achieve one thing – for their kids to be able to go to school – and as they had encountered obstacles, they had dealt with them. Over time, they had built an elementary school, achieved food security for one year in advance, established an HIV/AIDS awareness center, and much more whilst aspiring to build a high school. This story is something that still really inspires me. If you have a vision and a will to achieve it, but the process seems too complex, just take baby steps, and you will get there. 

Your middle name?

So my parents were total hippies when I was born. Yep, we owned an orange Volkswagen van with a pop up roof. We also lived in Montana next to Salish and Kootenai native American reservations. My middle name, Qeytqam, means wild strawberry in either Kootenai or Salish (I really have to do some research to figure out which). Apparently it’s because my face was red like a strawberry when I was born.

A memorable story from working at AAU?

I would not be able to pick just one. Every day at AAU is its own memorable experience with its own unique story. It’s made so by the incredible people around you. Everyone has stories and insights from all around the world to contribute and these are shared with openness and accepted with curiosity. When things get busy and stressful and down, sometimes it takes a bit of nudging to find it, but the AAU spirit is there and it’s unforgettable.