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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Studying in Belfast

Telling people that I planned to spend the fall studying in Belfast was an entertaining task. Would my listener respond with unrestrained excitement, cautious encouragement, or a simple, “Belfast? Is that safe?”? Unfortunately, much of what America knows about Belfast and Northern Ireland in general has its roots in the tragic images of violence that haunted our televisions and newspapers for much of the late twentieth century. In fact, it is these very preconceptions that compelled me to study abroad in Belfast. I wanted to discover for myself the real stories behind the myths and half-truths surrounding the conflict, and for the past two months I have been studying Northern Irish politics, along with Irish literature, at Queen's University in Belfast.

In preparation for putting down my own thoughts about Belfast, I asked an American friend of mine here how she would describe the city: "Not as bad as the media portrays it and not as good as the Belfast City Council might want you to believe." I have to agree.

Let me begin by saying that I have seen no tanks, no army, no guns, and no explosions. Northern Ireland is a changed place and the old images from the TV and newspapers are just that: old. This is not to say that violence no longer exists in any form anywhere. In fact, even our university orientation programme subtly advised us to stay out of certain areas of the city alone or after dark. However, huge strides have been made in the last few months alone. In July, the Provisional IRA announced an end to its armed campaign, and in September, they completed the decommissioning of their weapons. The latest report from the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), a watchdog for paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland, gave cautiously encouraging news about the status of criminal activity of some paramilitary groups, especially the PIRA. Currently, the British and Irish governments, along with many major political parties of Northern Ireland, are awaiting the IMC's more comprehensive report in January. A positive report could be the push needed to get Northern Ireland's political parties back on the road to open discourse and a government that seeks to include all communities.

The major question I had before coming here was, How do people function on a daily basis in a society that has been so haunted by war and remains divided on so many levels? I've found the answer is, no differently from you or I. It is true that there are still certain taboo topics and unspoken understandings. Enquiring about subjects as seemingly innocuous as someone's high school, church, hometown or address, or surname can occasionally raise eyebrows here, as it can be interpreted (though often it is not) as an attempt to discover a person's religion and/or politics. Referring to the name of the place can even be a tricky business. One is fine with Northern Ireland, but referring to the region as Ulster, the Province, The Six Counties, The North, or Ireland can imply or reveal a political bias. However, for the majority of people, these issues don't intrude on everyday life. All people in Belfast and Northern Ireland in general may not be ready to completely abandon the old ideology of Catholic versus Protestant or Nationalist/Republican versus Unionist/Loyalist, but to me many seem ready to attempt a move beyond the violence and political intolerance that has impeded genuine advancements in Northern Ireland. Issues like healthcare, education, housing and the economy are as much front page headlines here as are paramilitary decommissioning, policing and justice reforms, and a possible return to a government in which the major parties agree to share power. Especially hopeful is the desire I've observed in most people my age to forgive the sins of the past on both sides of the conflict and finally create a truly peaceful and just society.

As I close in on my last few weeks here, I've been asking myself what I am going to remember most distinctly about Belfast. Many memories come to mind—the daily glimpses of the green hills surrounding the city, the taste of an Ulster fry on a Sunday morning, the way Queen's University looks like Hogwarts at first glance, the sound of any Belfastian saying "What 'bout ye, luv?" (How are you, dear?), carving a turnip for Halloween in the old Celtic tradition and more. Though one of my most important lessons is that, contrary to widespread opinions, Northern Ireland is not all about politics, I'd be lying to say that the political developments, along with a new understanding of the communities here, have not been an important part of my experience. I truly believe that, whatever happens next with the government of Northern Ireland, many of the developments I have witnessed in the past few months will be key in writing the next chapter of this land's history. I hope it proves to be a positive one, for the opportunity of getting to know this city, its people, and its culture has increased my appreciation for all the traditions represented here and increased my hopes, like so many young people here, that the future holds something better for everyone in Northern Ireland.

Taking on St. Andrews in Scotland

Here I am in front of the ruins of the old castle in St. Andrews. It sits right on the water and is an impressive sight.

Swimming in the North Sea. Sounds fun, right? Well, it would sound especially appealing when you come to St. Andrews after one of our lovely but scorching Texas summers. Granted, I have been wearing a wetsuit, but it is an interesting bragging rite. Especially since I lately have ended up swimming in the North Sea after I have capsized out of my kayak when surfing on some of the lovely waves. Can't do something like that in Dallas!

This is the building where the economics and management classes are held. Looks a bit different from the one we have back at UTD!

St. Andrews is quite different from Dallas. For one, I still haven't quite gotten used to which side of the road the cars will come at you from while I'm walking to class. Or walking anywhere in town for that matter, being that from just about anywhere in town it takes no more than twenty minutes to walk to the center. The town is small and beautiful. On my daily walk to classes, I pass the beach, the old cathedral, and the lovely St. Leonard's College. My psychology classes take place in the Old Library in the Psychology building in St. Mary's Quad, which had a tree that is said to have been planted by Mary Queen of Scots. The Quad itself is a square of striking old buildings. My Russian lectures are held in the other quad, St. Salvator's Quad. It's a bit smaller and newer (the current buildings are only from the 18th century) than St. Mary's, but events often occur in the big grass square in the middle. Last week, I participated in a student protest led by the Ethical Investment group against some of the university's business affiliations. And on Raisin Monday, a university tradition, all the first year students (the freshers) participate in a huge foam fight while dressed up in costumes that older students, their "academic parents," dressed them in.

The lovely building I am blinking in front of is St. Salvator's Hall (nicknamed Sallies), or at least the back of it. It's one of the dormitories at St. Andrews.

There's also a thriving campus life. In the Student's Association, a.k.a. the Union, they have "bops" where you can dance the night away. There are lots of student societies and sports clubs as well. I personally belong to the Canoe Club, Psych Soc (the psychology society), J-Soc (the Jewish society), and Knitting Society, along with others. With the Canoe Club, as I mentioned earlier, we practice twice a week in the pool and go out to the shore once a week to surf in our kayaks. Psych Soc sponsors weekly talks by various professionals about many different facets of the field. The last speaker was a prison psychologist and spoke about the programs she is involved with for rehabilitation of prisoners. The one before that worked for social services and talked about the many career opportunities in the field of social work. In J-Soc Friday night dinners are held for Shabbat about twice a month that the students cook themselves. I've helped with the cooking and it's always been fun. The Knitting Society not only helps teach people to knit but is going to be participating in "Afghans for Afghans," a program where people send items like blankets, mittens, and sweaters to Afghanistan.

Behind me is a view of one of the famous golf courses in St. Andrews. I'm pretty sure this one is the Old Course. It's huge.

St. Andrews is also famous, other than for the university of course, for its golf. Early in the semester Dunhill Links had a celebrity golf tournament and we all kept our eyes peeled that weekend for celebrities walking around town. The golf courses are picturesque and on Sundays they let non-golfers walk around the course. They are exquisite to see and fun to explore.

This is one of the university's buildings. It does not hold any classes, but the administration building looks neat. Imagine if our Multipurpose Building looked like that!

The history surrounding you in St. Andrews is amazing. Not only are there the old golf courses, but just about everywhere you walk you can see a sign denoting some event that occurred there. Every time I go to my Russian lecture, right outside the main entry to the St. Salvator's Quad in front of St. Salvator Chapel, I pass the initials P.H. marked out in cobblestones. These denote the spot where Patrick Hamilton, a Protestant martyr, was executed. Superstition states that if you step on the initials you will fail your degree at St. Andrews. The way to fix the error of stepping is the May Dip, where freshers jump in the North Sea. Hearing about the May Dip tradition makes me happy that I will be able to avoid such a feat since I come back to Dallas in January. I prefer the aid of a wetsuit before swimming in the North Sea.