International Studies excursion contextualizes Brexit

A breathtaking view of York Minster seen from a walk of the medieval wall trail that forms the perimeter of the city. Courtesy of Kelly Vinett

In 1987, 62 faculty and students undertook the first INTL 160 study trip in Vassar history to investigate Gorbachev’s glasnost reforms in the Soviet Union.

In 2019, 30 Vassar students and faculty, myself included, went on the last INTL 160 trip of its kind to study life in the time of the chaotic Brexit negotiations. For spring break, we embarked outside Vassar’s gates and across the pond. Professor of Hispanic Studies and Director of Environmental Studies Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert and Professor of Economics David Kennett, our seasoned trip leaders, acted as our overqualified travel guides. All of that pre-planning and herding students onto planes and into museums deserves a certificate of achievement.

Here are six takeaways I could only have gleaned from experiencing these six cities during the U.K.’s current profound historical moment.

Vinett’s view during the group’s first night. Courtesy of Kelly Vinett

Glasgow

Voted both the friendliest and the most violent city in the U.K. in 2014, Glasgow is characterized by contradiction. There are several identities that separate Glaswegians from one another, as well as from England, the neighboring, more powerful nation to the south.

The most obvious source of difference in Glasgow is sports rivalry. The Celtics and Rangers are both Glaswegian football clubs, and people fervently favor one over the other. However, this conflict extends beyond a mere goal kick. Competition between the Celtics and the Rangers fuses with larger elements of a person’s identity, like whether one is Catholic or Protestant, or whether one’s ancestors come from Britain or Northern Ireland.

One of our Uber drivers told us he got his Master’s in Political Science at the University of Glasgow. Naturally, we had to talk politics. “Britain is an American puppet,” he said, speaking on increasing factory closures. Though the Industrial Revolution happened in the U.K., China and the U.S. have usurped the British capacity to mass produce.

The Riverside Museum of Transport was one of my favorite outings in Glasgow, but not as much for its display of vehicles ranging from trains to Model Ts as for its architecture. Seeing work by my favorite female architect, Zaha Hadid, in real life, up close, was exciting. So was walking through the carefully executed space made for families and tourists to troll around, looking at trains.

Speaking of trains, it’s difficult not to notice the museum’s ostentatious object: the South African Railways Locomotive 3007. I certainly wasn’t expecting to see a vehicle as large as this from South Africa in Scotland. Built in Glasgow’s engineering heyday in 1945, this metal dinosaur was a physical indicator of apartheid’s presence. Platforms and cars were separated by race, and urban planning became a vehicle to enforce apartheid.

Having studied abroad in Cape Town, the antiquated train reminded me of taking the dilapidated Cape Town metro which still shows traces of apartheid’s past.

Carlos Eduardo Espina ’21, Kirk Patrick Testa ’19, and Elias Contrubis ’20 walk from Edinburgh Castle into town. Courtesy of Kelly Vinett

Edinburgh

At our next stop, we met Member of Scottish Parliament (MSP) Tom Arthur. He represents the majority group, the Scottish National Party, which reached new highs of popular support from its campaign of Scottish independence.

Arthur told us that in 2014, Scotland held a referendum to leave the U.K. Many referred to the prospective break as “devolution.” A decisive split would justify generations of Scottish disillusionment with the politically dominant British. No longer could those seated in Westminster decide the fate of the nation to the north. However, the MSP, who was in favor of leaving the U.K., said more people voted to stay in the U.K. because they were concerned about losing public services. Whatever the outcome, Scottish identity would have been preserved.

Scotland’s rocky past manifests physically in its architecture. The steep volcanic plug of Castle Rock is the throne upon which Edinburgh Castle majestically sits. Our hotel room was perfectly placed to take in the medieval wonder at all hours of the day. Daydreaming on my bed, I felt less like a Vassar student and more like an extra in “Mary Queen of Scots.” On a tour of the castle, we entered the room where the infamous monarch gave birth to her only child. I didn’t think I could revere women who gave birth in the 16th century any more than I already do until I saw the minuscule room that could fit, at most, a twin-sized bed.

A breathtaking view of York Minster seen from a walk of the medieval wall trail that forms the perimeter of the city. Courtesy of Kelly Vinett

York

For me, York was the outlier destination on the trip. Surrounded by walls left over from Roman defense, York feels like both a tourist city and a fortress. Maybe pixies, or some other mystical fiction, could be discovered living amongst us commoners watching Brexit unravel on the evening news.

My first day in York has been marked in my memory with getting lost. We had been given free time in York Minster, the beautiful monster of a cathedral that took 800 years to build, so I started to sketch the stained glass that surrounded every dimension. When I looked up, I didn’t see the group. After a moment of minor panic, I realized my fear was unfounded. York was small, and I had the technology to trace myself back to the group. Needless to say, I found them in the Shambles, a maze of a cobbled streets and charcuterie, complete with a place for Hogwarts students to dock their brooms.

On our last York morning, my friend Kirk Testa ’19 and I decided to seize the day and walk the wall one last time, wishing to feel like we were the medieval kings of our own era. His being an Art History major and my being a Studio Art correlate made for the perfect pairing to visit the Aesthetica Exhibit at the York Art Gallery as a final hurrah.

A protester outside Westminster in London. The building is the formal meeting place for both houses of U.K. Parliament. Courtesy of Kelly Vinett

London

With the excitement of four days in London came a bit of chaos. Tired from rolling two weeks’ worth of luggage off the tube and onto the hectic streets, we arrived at the National Hotel located in the heart of the city. The last thing I wanted to hear was that our rooms weren’t ready. We all deserved a nap.

The maze of too-narrow hallways with fluorescent lights hanging from the too-low ceilings, reminded me of Vassar’s own spatially confused Noyes building.

On our second night in London, we went to the theatre to see “Shipwreck” by Anne Washburn, a play that explores how today’s reactionary politics affect liberals at the Almeida Theater. After finding my seat (A-23), I skeptically skimmed the playbill. But by the end of the three-hour play, my mind was changed. I couldn’t help but find parallels between Trump’s election and the Brexit decision. When an onstage character whispered, “I voted for him, for Donald Trump,” it reminded me of an earlier moment of the trip, when a young man selling used clothes in York confessed, “I voted to leave.” In hindsight, he told me he would’ve wanted to remain.

Nick Garcia ’21 and Alan Vision ’20 watch the River Lagan outside the Titanic Museum in Belfast. Courtesy of Kelly Vinett

Belfast

Next, it was time to leave one island and fly to the smaller one adjacent: a country with divisions so strong, it caused an armed conflict to which some refer as terrorism. Over the span of 30 years, what many remember as “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland was a nationalist effort led by proponents of Irish independence.

We were lucky enough to meet a former member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the upstairs of a pub with a single sliver of a Celtic-style stained glass window tinted green. Needless to say, the dark lighting in the room set the mood when the IRA member told us he had been in prison for 16 years. This experience, he indicated, reinforced his politics. He emphasized the view that the IRA was not a terrorist organization, but the proponent of an armed struggle for freedom.

The member would categorize the IRA’s pursuits of justice during a time when much of Northern Ireland’s Catholic, nationalist majority felt tossed by the wayside in Westminster, as having innocent beginnings. When only the mostly Protestant-rate payers could vote, and failures in social housing prevailed, Irish Catholics felt the need to act.

The IRA member explained that the IRA and British Army were in a deadlock for most of the 1970s and 80s. In 1972, he estimated there to be 30 shootings per day and about 20,000 explosions in the year. The tragic Bloody Sunday—in which 14 nationalist marchers were shot dead by the British—happened that same year. According to him, the bloody massacres of Northern Ireland were not unlike identity conflicts elsewhere: The IRA rose in solidarity with Palestine and anti-apartheid struggles.

Despite the Peace Deal of 1998, polarization surrounding Brexit has reignited popular fears of a violent resurgence.

An outdoor, informal art installation found in the streets of Dublin. Courtesy of Kelly Vinett

Dublin

Though my mother’s entire family is from the Republic of Ireland, it’s the place about which I knew the least prior to my trip. Being a non-U.K. member attached to a U.K. country, the Republic of Ireland emphasizes the government’s failure to consider Brexit through the lens of a steadfast member of the Eurozone.

The most obvious miscalculation made by Westminster involves their utter disregard for Ireland during Brexit deliberations. Because rolling out Brexit would involve Northern Ireland leaving the EU customs union with the rest of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland would still be an EU member, their easy, free-trade relations would become a thing of the laissez-faire past. British media referred to the customs issue as the Irish backstop.

Riding along the beautiful, rolling hills grazed by cotton-white sheep, I didn’t even notice when we crossed the border from Northern Ireland. In the face of Brexit, I could imagine the virtually nonexistent border becoming a more palpable barrier.

Though our professors warned us, I wasn’t prepared for Ireland’s capital city, bisected by the River Liffey, to be so expensive. In this booming economy, the currency itself was also different, though I didn’t internalize it until I was knee-deep in a shopping center. Succumbing to tourist attraction, I switched out my pounds for Euros.

Being a predominantly white country that was the colonized rather than the colonizer, Ireland holds a unique position in Western Europe. However, the anti-immigration fear mongering that influenced Trump’s election can be likened to Northern Ireland’s vote to leave the EU. Online campaigns instilled within voters the notion that immigrants were stealing their jobs. Facebook and YouTube distributed ads aimed to influence the victims of digital consumerism—members of the electorate.

According to a talk we attended by Irish Times journalist Sorcha Pollak titled “New to the Neighborhood: Immigration and Multiculturality in Contemporary Ireland,” the Irish Republic’s population of 4.5 million includes 11.6 percent foreign nationals, a significant portion of the population. Many immigrants come to Ireland by crossing the Mediterranean, but completing the journey is never an easy feat. Nor is it a quick process to obtain Irish citizenship.

Our own, less threatening journey culminated in a plane ride from Dublin back to Stewart Airport in Newburgh, NY. On trend with Brexit delays, we stood in line to board the plane for at least an hour and a half. The flight attend, Steph, with whom I’d made friends, told me the delay was due to Trump’s ban of Boeing 737 Max aircrafts given the two recent crashes of the model. Therefore, people originally planning to fly on Boeing planes had to board our flight. Never before had I been so bothered by the concept of “safety first.”

Reflecting at Vassar

Like Brexit, the future of the study trips is uncertain. According to Director of International Studies Tim Koechlin, funding is an issue. Yet, they haven’t been cancelled. Koechlin indicated that the new curriculum set to roll out in 2019-2020 could furnish possible solutions, including multiple trips per year with fewer students, over shorter periods of time.

Another benefit, according to Koechlin, would be increased accessibility for lower-income students. Additionally, the model would invite a higher diversity of professors applying to lead trips.

I left the excursion thinking a lot about identity. Internalizing our British, European or American identities can spur an indescribable sense of loyalty to a place that supposedly endows us with rights. However, is preserving this nationalist sentiment through the use of barriers the best option to move forward? With a history delineated by wars and walls promoting injustice, we cannot look to our past to tackle concerns raised by globalization.

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