Written by: 
Iona Murdoch Monday, 14 June, 2021 - 11:14

Section in the Spotlight – ESN Tartu

“There’s a lot to credit for our level of activity…I am super thankful to have and work with volunteers that are as motivated as they are. It really boosts our own motivation, and encourages us to keep working."

"For such a small community and city, we really are quite big” (Annie, President).

When asked what the secret to their successful, sustainable and super active section is, ESN Tartu gave the above answer. But how can they keep motivation so strong and events so popular when so many others are struggling? If anyone can tell you, it is ESN Tartu – this month’s winner of Section in the Spotlight!

Events on Offer

Estonian sections have been slightly luckier than some in terms of restrictions, and were able to do quite a few in-person events last semester. However, over the last few months they have had to transition to the virtual world more. As a result, something that has become legendary throughout many sections and national boards in the network is ESN Tartu’s regular themed quizzes and their Health and Wellbeing efforts. The latter has led to them holding a range of events and workshops, including one where there was an online session on depression, anxiety and burnout. They hired a professional to come in and talk to the students about different mental health illnesses, answering Q&As while spreading awareness and encouraging everyone to have a more positive attitude towards the topic.

Related to the topic of mental health is the part they played in the ‘Survive the Nordic Winter’ campaign that was all over Instagram feeds in November and December last year. The Scandinavian countries and other northern European countries such as the UK and Estonia have very little light in the winter months – paired with the freezing temperatures, it can be quite a shock for incoming international and exchange students to face, and takes a toll on mental health. The purpose of the campaign was to spread best practices of how to survive this harsh winter period, covering topics from mental health to nutrition. By working with other ESN countries such as Norway and Denmark, they were able to reach more students while having more resources to compile the information and create the graphics.

When restrictions are lesser and the active volunteers could plan physical events, ESN Tartu has two larger events that stand out. The first is an ever-popular pool party, where up to 150 attendees can be found in a private setting. The section rents out a whole spa for an event, where they have full access to pools, hot-tubs and saunas. The second favourite event of the board is Jam Session, a music event where students and professionals can sign up in groups and form a band. After a few weeks of practicing, all the groups come together and give a concert – a very entertaining way of making friends in a unique way.

Collaborating with Everyone Near and Far

One of the things the lovely volunteers of Tartu picked up on during lockdown was the habit we all seemed to develop of ordering takeaway a lot more. Realising this wasn’t exactly the healthiest or most cost-effective way to eat, the Events Manager created a cooking event.

“There’s a local refugee catering kitchen that cooks and distributes food across the city. We thought it was a really cool idea to collaborate with them since they’re all internationals living in a new country, much like our own international students learning different cuisines. It helped a lot of our members to be inspired with their cooking, and learn some basic meals to give their dinner more variety than frozen pizza and takeaway” (Muazzamkhon, Events Manager).

This collaborative theme is very present in many of the activities ESN Tartu runs, especially when it came to the Sustainability Week they organised. There was a mixture of other ESN sections and non-ESN organisations getting involved, something the volunteers enjoy as they get to work with loads of people from different countries and connect with other ESN volunteers in a way that wouldn’t have happened without the virtual world taking over.

Events that were organised included cycling talks and movie nights related to sustainability, as well as language cafes that are also related to social inclusion (ESN Tartu are very good at tying their events to multiple causes at once). As Estonia is a relatively small country and locals tend to stick to themselves, it is hard to make friends with the Estonians when you are an international student. The section found a way to work around this though – they worked with all the Estonian sections to open a call for Estonians who wanted to learn about different cultures and make friends. This opened up the possibility of getting to socialise with locals while integrating the international students into their new society, all while discussing topics related to sustainability of course. When it comes to collaborating with other ESN sections in Estonia, there’s only a few so it’s usually fairly easy to find one interested in running an event together – after all, it boosts numbers and lets students meet people at different universities.

In terms of collaborations with national organisations, there was a lot to do around physical activities and exercise. From dance classes to yoga to fitness classes in the local gym, they really were successful in finding companies to work with and provide the best services to their students.

In terms of international partnerships, it is quite often the case that ESN countries reach out to ESN Tartu, especially when it comes to the regular quizzes that are organised (the last international quiz saw participation from Sweden, Greece, Croatia, Portugal, Lithuania, and Ukraine). Having so many sections present from the network really goes to show how popular this section is.

The Secret to Motivation and Recruitment

Most sections rely on social media campaigns and word of mouth for recruitment, something that has been a struggle to sustain with a lack of students coming on or returning from exchange. ESN Tartu does things a bit differently.

At the start of every semester, the President and Events Manager travel to each of the five universities the section covers and attend the welcome weeks. During this time, they talk to the incoming students, give presentations about ESN and their sections, and generally spread the word that they exist and organise exciting events and projects. They always get feedback about how positive and passionate they are, something that is clearly contagious with the number of students they usually manage to recruit as volunteers each semester (there are currently around 15 volunteers dedicated to organising events alone).

Once they have recruited their volunteers, the next challenge is to keep them motivated and engaged. ESN Tartu seems to have got this down to a tee as well, using the beginning of lockdown to rethink how they reward their volunteers for all of their hard work.

What the board came up with was a points system, based on role within the event and number of events organised over a month (‘Motivational Days’). At the end of each month, the most active volunteer(s) are rewarded with an experience or gift – usually a gift card or ESN Tartu merchandise (you can never have enough ESN gadgets!). Alongside this, there are regular community events every semester – usually two ‘mini events’ such as a museum trip or canoe afternoon, and two ‘larger events’ where the volunteers all go somewhere overnight and take part in some team-building and training. Even when there were strict restrictions in place during lockdown, they managed to keep these Motivational Days and community events going by going online with cooking events so they could still socialise together in some way. 

We believe the volunteers should be rewarded for all their hard work, and so set up community events to do so while getting to forge friendships along the way. The events are all free of charge, opening them up to anyone regardless of their financial abilities. We find this closes the gap between the board members and active volunteers, since in our section, everyone is equal. We are lucky to have such good partners and profitable events to be able to support these community events, since they have really benefited our section since we started organising them” (Anastasija, HR manager).

Overall, it is clear why ESN Tartu was awarded the Section in the Spotlight. From successful collaborations to high motivation and community nights, this rather big section in a relatively small country really has found a way to thrive over the past year. They have stayed present and active to continue supporting all mobility and international students that walk through the doors of their five universities, and continue to support them through the pandemic. The only question left is to wonder what their next achievement will be!

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