Patrik Kurath – Hungary
Multi-cultural communication for problem-solving
Sometimes individuals from a comparatively repressive environment manage to experience the kind of formative years that foster the spirit of global citizenship. Born in Hungary, the grandson of a principled and educated engineer in the coal mines, Patrik Kurath and his community struggled with the legacy of Russian communism and its reactionary replacement. “A political revolution occurred in the 1990s, but a social one did not,” Patrik says. As a result, three generations straddled the two systems. Political reform “promised the socio-economic benefits of democratic capitalism but was not equipped with the entrepreneurial toolbox for achieving them.” Government corruption worsened and politicians spread propaganda to polarize people. Patrik believes he would have “lost opportunities to the mindset of pessimism and apathy” without certain activities and mentors in his early years.
His childhood “playground” looked nothing like that of his fellow schoolmates. He wore historical costumes and cavorted among exotic backdrops. His friends were sophisticated grownups. As a child actor with a theater troop, he performed for charitable events. He loved it and enjoyed looking at the world through the eyes of a character different from himself. “I had to play by adult rules, adult expectations, adult work ethic, and adult problems, which altogether gave me some perspective on life at an early age,” he says. He also learned what it means to operate within a “profound teamwork.” Unfortunately, when he starred in a popular production of “The Little Prince” from Saint-Exupéry’s novel, classmates and teachers began treating him differently. Patrik refers to their behavior as a “backlash.”
He was very involved with theater and folk-dancing for twelve years, but folk dancing involved kids his same age. He developed a social and cultural sensitivity to others as well as “great enthusiasm” for the dancing, primarily because of the festivals. He traveled throughout Hungary, and his troop became “cultural ambassadors” to the Czech Republic, Finland, and Turkey. His parents had insisted that his studies came first, so he was the only participant from his group able to speak commendable English. As a result, people sought Patrik for communications. “Mediation between Hungarians and foreigners started then, I guess,” he says, smiling.
High school gave Patrik a fresh start, but the institution was perceived as “elitist, daunting to talented students of modest backgrounds.” Patrik and two others volunteered to “innovate and redesign the school’s Prussian marketing strategies.” He explains, “My initiative developed a student-centric representation and open-day system, increasing the social diversity of applications.” It was still in use when he graduated in June of 2013, earning the Outstanding Community Leadership and Academic Excellence prize from the University of West Hungary, Bolyai Janos High School.
Grinning, Patrik will tell you that when he wants to “zone out and relax a bit,” he designs buildings. His original specialization at Budapest School of Technology and Economics was architecture, but he sat through a grim welcoming speech that proclaimed, “Forget everything you’ve learnt…because it is irrelevant; only one in three will make it to the end of this course anyway.” Discouraged, he longed to drop out, but his family counseled perseverance. At the end of the term, one of those fateful little doorways opened, however.
His mom found the thriving Milestone Institute in Budapest that aims to prepare talented Hungarian students for entrance into the top ten universities in the US and UK. As alumni, they agree to participate in a network of graduate expatriates who would eventually return as professionals to form a core of innovative projects that energize the Hungarian economy at every level. At Milestone, Patrik took classes in politics, sociology, and international relations, and became involved in an exciting social entrepreneurship project. He interned as an assistant program coordinator for Mindspace Social Innovation, an NGO in Budapest, organizing international conferences. In November, Patrik traveled to Berlin to participate as a delegate at the Berlin Model United Nations Conference, and then in December, he was awarded an honorable mention at the Eotvos National Model United Nations Conference in Budapest. At the end of this intense year, he completed the advanced program with honors, and the University of Cambridge offered him admittance in the fall.
That summer, Patrik volunteered as a youth counselor for a summer camp, conducting workshops for Hungarian students planning to pursue further studies at British universities. Interestingly, Patrik joined a Christian group and later a Jewish organization at Cambridge, always pursuing an understanding of divisive thinking and possible countermeasures. At Cambridge, he was essentially starting his education over at age twenty, majoring in political and international relations.
At the end of his first year, he flew to Beijing in the People’s Republic of China to the Camford Royal School, volunteering to teach four summer camps at two high school campuses. He planned and conducted Western Civilization and English classes, working with over 170 students from diverse social backgrounds.
The recent refugee movement and the European response to it underscore “the paramount importance of international cooperation,” Patrik says, adding that political instability brings about an inclination to extremism. “Xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, and conservative political ideologies still dominate the mindset of Hungarians in general, going against all common European ideals for building a peaceful and prosperous Union.”
Even at Cambridge, various national, cultural, political, and religious societies boycotted each other and obstructed meaningful conversations. As one of five diverse fellow students—an Israeli, a British Jew, an American, an Iranian Muslim, and a Hungarian Catholic—Patrik helped found the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum, a student organization focusing on the region and its deep socio-political relationship with Europe. As the Strategic Officer, he aimed to create an academic study-platform for students and introduce particular issues for discussion and enlightenment. “Great success is not an understatement,” Patrik says, since a community of four hundred people grew, including “Palestinians and Israelis, Turkish and Kurds, and Muslims, Jews and Christians in the same room.”
Simultaneously, Patrik began working with StandWithUs, a UK-Israel leadership program, focusing on public speaking, educational event management at campuses, and Israeli-Jewish history. He developed an inter-university advocacy network to combat anti-Semitism and mitigate tensions in EU countries as a result of recent migration and terrorism. “I found the importance of my role in a truly limitless and empowering hub that has the capacity to collect people from every European and Middle-Eastern country and ‘send’ influence home with their every vacation.”
Patrik would love to help organize “a Europhile student forum” and is excited about the future, but he says, “I believe I can also make a change while still a student.” He passionately hopes to bolster the European Union’s ability to cope with extreme reactions to refugees and migrants. Hungary is projecting “a detachment from international cooperation” that is especially worrisome to Patrik. Its pattern of corruption and economic inefficiency spreads disillusionment and the rise of populism and extremist ideologies “that threaten to separate democracy from its power source: the people.”
While embracing the power of grassroots organizations to help solve problems, Patrik says, “Rarely do people sit down and take time to actually build relationships with each other. This is the greatest lesson that I will take away with me from Hansen.”