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The Amazing Journey
When Casey Clevenger headed to Europe for a year of study abroad, her itinerary read like a guidebook to regions of conflict. First Northern Ireland. Next South Africa. Finally, Cyprus. Not exactly a luxury tour. But for Clevenger and other UW students interested in exploring the causes of conflict, it was a compelling journey.
The unusual study abroad opportunity—a project called “Memory, Identity, Conflict, and Dialogue”—was offered by the Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) program and the Jackson School of International Studies.
“CHID’s focus is the genesis of perceptions, attitudes, and notions of self and others,” says Jim Clowes, associate director of CHID and senior lecturer in the Jackson School of International Studies. “Often the things that define who we are—that give us meaning and substance—are the very things we are not willing to yield but rather kill or be killed to preserve.”
Clowes chose to explore these issues in Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Cyprus because the clash of identities has been a central theme in each location. In Northern Ireland, the Nationalists and Unionists have battled for years. South Africa, post-apartheid, remains a country divided by economic status and race. The island of Cyprus has a Greek Orthodox majority but half the island is occupied by Turkey. There is open hostility between Greek and Turkish communities, which are separated by a United Nations buffer zone.
The CHID program included one quarter in each destination. Students enrolled for one or two quarters, or the entire three-quarter sequence. The programs in Belfast and Cyprus had 25 students; the South Africa portion had 45.
“Every quarter was like a year for me,” says Clevenger, who participated all three quarters. “I fit so much in, trying to live the experience as richly as possible.”
A highlight for Clevenger was the opportunity to connect with local people in meaningful ways. The structure of the program encouraged this, requiring students to complete an independent research project and participate in a community service activity in each location.
“They did everything from tutoring kids to offering a basketball camp,” says Clowes. “Some students worked with a crew of Northern Irish men who repaired houses of lower income people.”
Clevenger decided to focus on women and political representation in each location. In Northern Ireland, she volunteered at the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, a small party represented by two members in the Northern Irish Parliament. “I worked there one afternoon a week,” Clevenger says, “helping to plan their annual conference, where members vote on proposed motions and discuss current issues facing the party. I was able to gain a unique perspective by always asking questions and observing the country’s politics through the activities of a political party.”
Clevenger also spent two hours each week volunteering with a mother/toddler group in a working class Catholic neighborhood, and she attended a Pensioner’s Group in the evening. “The friendships I made there were really important to me,” she says. “To leave those was very tough.”
In South Africa, UW students made other memorable connections. Four students interned at the Ministry of Social Services in the Western Cape, a governmental organization dedicated to alleviating poverty and building civil society. They were assigned to do communications troubleshooting, which involved extensive travel and the preparation of an executive report. “The initiative of students connecting at the deepest level with substantive players in South Africa was incredible,” says Clowes.
For Clevenger, who participated in a week-long trip to smaller towns in the Western Cape with the African National Congress Women’s League, South Africa was a vastly different experience than Northern Ireland.
“The economic disparity in South Africa is so in your face,” she says. “Our money was worth so much, we could live this posh lifestyle while working in the townships. We were floating between worlds.”
UW students Ryan Eney and Ian McFeron had similar reactions. “In a day, I could go from a well-off neighborhood to a desperately poor neighborhood,” says McFeron, who volunteered in an after school sports program in Cape Town. “Crossing that line was emotionally draining and forced me to see myself as a privileged white American. I’m working landscaping and trying to save for my education, but to them I have more money than they’ve ever seen before.”
Adds Eney, “It was shocking to see just how drastic and stark the needs and pain were there. If you didn’t come out of these places and weep, you really didn’t experience them.”
Beyond the Big Picture
Balancing the sometimes painful, always memorable community projects, students also took an academic course on the cultural history of each location. In Belfast, UW History Professor George Behlmer taught the class. In the other locations, Clowes and the other instructors—Doug Merrell, Aisling McCormick, and Dagni Bredesen—led the class with guest speakers providing their perspectives.
What Behlmer wanted students to understand most of all was the importance of looking beyond the “big picture” when studying a region. “The big picture runs the risk of privileging stereotype over understanding of particular perspectives,” explains Behlmer. “Someone raised in the leafy green precincts of Belfast’s university district will have a drastically different worldview from someone raised along the Falls Road, a blighted neighborhood (and I.R.A. recruiting ground) just one mile away. To me, that was the crucial lesson: that place, both spatially and culturally defined, is the enemy of easy generalization. All it takes in Belfast is a mile—sometimes a mere 100 yards—and ‘martyrs’ become ‘maniacs.’”
The students lived this lesson, quite literally. In Belfast, some students were assigned to housing at a Protestant teacher training college in a comfortable neighborhood, while others lived on Falls Road with residents of a Catholic teacher training college. “I split the students up because I wanted them to make friends with folks in the two different communities,” says Clowes. “And I wanted tension in the group, born out of their social living conditions—some much more comfortable than others—so they could reflect on that.” The living arrangements also demonstrated the UW group’s neutrality to leaders on both sides.
In Cape Town, the students stayed in a mixed neighborhood, with “progressive-minded whites and more or less middle class coloreds and blacks.” The central location allowed them access to both white and black neighborhoods, explains Clowes. In Cyprus, the entire group was based in Nicosia, on the Greek part of the island, since the area occupied by Turkey is not recognized as a legitimate government.
That was just one of the difficulties of studying in Cyprus. Opportunities to hear the perspectives of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots proved challenging throughout the Cyprus quarter. “The intractability between the two groups is so hidden but so pervasive that it was hard to get people to talk about it, except for recriminations of the other side,” says Clowes. “This was particularly difficult since we had just come out of South Africa, which was very emotionally draining.”
Clevenger, who had made so many contacts in Belfast and Cape Town, found herself floundering in Cyprus. “It was much harder to get involved,” she recalls. “It’s a more closed society, and community service is not a foundation of the culture as it is in the other places. The people were skeptical and wary of the motivations for our involvement.”
Unable to volunteer with a women’s political organization, Clevenger pursued individual interviews with female politicians. By the end of the quarter, she had completed more than a dozen interviews with both Turkish and Greek women. “I talked to a woman who does a radio show on women and politics, talked to members of Parliament, and the only female Supreme Court judge on the island,” she says. “I was struck by the similarities of the agendas of women on both sides.”
The Role of Identity
By the end of the third quarter abroad, Clevenger and her classmates were emotionally spent. “I was doing burnout management, as were others,” says Clevenger. That includes Clowes.
“The whole three-quarter program was very powerful and trying,” Clowes says. “but as an educational experience it was unparalleled, revealing both the promise and the utter complexity of ‘creating dialogue across difference.'"
Clowes faced the additional challenge of keeping the students safe, both physically and emotionally. That’s hard enough under normal circumstances, but even more challenging when students are studying complex identity issues that force them to question their own identity.
Clowes had the students write their thoughts and reactions in journals, which he read regularly. “I wanted students to gain tools for understanding how their own value system and their own identity issues create barriers,” he says. “The journals focused on reflections on these issues.”
McFeron describes his journal as “a lot of venting and introspection.” He found he had plenty to write. “I didn’t realize how much I was going to find myself in the mix of the conflicts we were studying,” says McFeron. “I envisioned doing interviews and writing papers, but I did not envision issues of my own identity being added into the mix. I began to see how my life experience frames my perspective, and that everybody has their own context.”
That appreciation of context has affected McFeron and other students deeply. They left the U.S. just days after 9/11 and returned to a country that was changed forever. But they were changed too.
“None of us are the same as we were,” says McFeron. “I learned that it is important to have my views and not give them up, but also be able to respect someone else’s views. Over the course of several months, I took everything that I believe, gave up on it, and then accepted it again. I got back what I lost, and more. But I will never have that same innocence about the world again.”
Adds Eney, “It was a very tiring process because we were exerting so much emotional and intellectual energy. But looking back on it, I can’t imagine approaching these issues any other way. It was such a powerful way to attempt to experience the world.”