USC Undergraduates Blog about their Semester Abroad in Northern Ireland

usc studentsTwo students from the University of Southern California, Brittany Aldredge and Taline Gettas, took part in the Semester Abroad in Northern Ireland during Spring 2012.

Brittany has a travel and study abroad blog that includes details of her time in Belfast. Of particular interest to readers interested in Semester Abroad is her post about studying reconciliation at the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation.

Taline wrote the following reflections, and gave us permission to post them here:

As I sit at Heathrow Airport, minutes away from boarding a plane that will return me home to Los Angeles, I am keenly aware that my time spent in Belfast has changed me. This change, while I cannot provide any specific modifications to my character as of yet, is undoubtedly complete in its metamorphosis. I have changed as a traveller, a student, a scholar, but most fundamentally and poignantly, I have changed as a person. While the University of Southern California has numerous study abroad programs to choose from, if one is looking for the opportunity to change through the growth of one’s knowledge base, test one’s academic rigor, and finally evaluate one’s self and the role one plays as a human being in this conflict plagued world, then one must also take advantage of all that Trinity College, Belfast has to offer. To spur such a fantastic opportunity would mirror a caterpillar’s refusal to spin its cocoon, fully aware that such an act will lead to its transformation into a butterfly.

While the University of Southern California has a number of fantastic professors who not only have had an impact in the academic sphere but have also spent time in the field, what one will experience in Belfast cannot be recreated anywhere else. Our program was characterized by a number of intensive courses, which were taught by members of Non-Government Organizations that were created and centered in Northern Ireland. It is one thing to be taught by an expert in a certain academic field, it is quite another to be taught by the people who have helped to create that field, in the field. Two organizations in particular, Dialogue for Peaceful Change (DPC) and Glencree, taught what I consider to be life-changing courses. The first of the two organizations, DPC, specializes in mediation work in Northern Ireland and setting up logistical emergency protocols to deal with outbreaks of violence. This organization was so successful in Northern Ireland that they were contracted in gang plagued city in Northern California to help neutralize the situation there. Through this course, we were not only taught the biological foundations for why people engage in conflict and eventually, violent conflict but also underwent extensive mediation training and become certified as a DPC facilitator. This particular intensive was held at a place called Corrymeela, which is an area by the sea which hosts youth and other groups that have been affected by the “Troubles” in an effort to promote understanding and breaking down sectarianism. In that location, with that organization, my fellow classmates and I became immersed not only in the conflict but also acquired the mindset to overcome that which we came to understand.

Glencree sent two individuals who have lived through their respective conflict situations, to teach a course on Comparative Peace Processes. Yassir and Ian taught us, the former was a Palestinian ex-patriot from the Gaza Strip and the latter was a former resident of Northern Ireland who was forced to move because he decided to partake in a mixed marriage. Both of these men knew firsthand about their particular conflict, but had also been travelling around the world – Haiti and Afghanistan in particular – trying to provide organizational techniques to communities who wish to work through their conflict situations. One of the assignments that served to really enlighten my classmates and I was a simulation meant to bring to light that the dynamics of power are always in play. It also showed that behavior is also determined by the power dynamic. Ideas such as these are simply stated, but the opportunity to truly experience them and take note of their occurrence is an opportunity to truly understand. It is this difference that makes the study abroad program in Belfast so special, it is a unique chance not to learn but to understand from those who know.

These two courses were not the only standouts. Wilhelm Verwoerd, whose grandfather was the architect of apartheid, also taught us a course on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He, in turn played a large role in creating the commission, working to break down the heinous social constructs that had riddled his home country with conflict for so long. That is simply an example of the sorts of the coursework, and the quality of discussions that will be had if one chooses to study in Ireland.

While it is true that the University of Southern California does not allow those studying in Northern Ireland to take part in the planned trips that is available to other United Kingdom students, and I hope that they choose to reverse that decision, there are some trips planned into the Irish School of Ecumenics schedule. These trips are not based in sight seeing or touristy occasions. Rather, they serve as an opportunity for students to converse with those who live in the conflict based cities that they are studying about. The trip to Londonderry/Derry in particular was an opportunity to walk the streets on which the Bloody Sunday protests had taken place and to hear from those who lost family members on that fateful day.

In addition, there is a trip to Geneva, which is largely coordinated by the ISE Dublin students. This trip is a great opportunity to see the city in which the original United Nations, the League of Nations, was created and meet with the various United Nations branches that are based in Geneva. During the two day trip, my fellow ISE tourists and I met with branches that head projects dealing with development, refugees, health, human rights, migrants and UNAIDS. Better than simply being presented by a boring PowerPoint presentation we were given real contact information in order to satisfy any follow up queries or inquire about internship and job opportunities. The Geneva trip, while expensive and an occasion where our home university refused to cover meal expenses, was in my opinion worth it.

Finally, I believe that Belfast is a great city to live, study and experience. We ended up living at Saint Anne’s Square in the Cathedral quarter, which is the premier location for going out and young professionals. Belfast is the sort of city that shuns the traditional tourist, instead it forces one to be inquisitive, inviting and inclusive. I cannot begin to recount the number of times when friends, professors and I would go to a pub and end up speaking to someone who had been involved in the Troubles or had an incredible life experience based on their locale. In Belfast, this sort happening is the norm, and serves to remind those visiting that they are constantly in the presence of the exception.

I think what really separates the Irish School of Ecumenics in Belfast is the fact that there are numerous reasons to decide attend this particular study abroad. It has something for every aspect of student life, it suffices every need and meets all expectations.

(Image: Taline Gettas, Dr Geraldine Smyth (Head of the Irish School of Ecumenics), and Brittany Aldredge)