Welcome to HECUA’s Alumni Profile series. Each month we’ll catch up with a HECUA alumni, and see how their time in a HECUA classroom influenced their career goals, their life in the community, and their pursuit of continued education. If you or a friend would like to participate in this series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. This month we’re delighted to feature Andy Twiton. Andy completed HECUA’s program in Northern Ireland in 2007, and feels its impact to this day! Read on for Andy’s reflection on his HECUA experience.
My semester in Northern Ireland was transformational. I lived with a community of students who would stay up late into the night discussing all we were doing, reading, and experiencing. We met people who were engaged in the work of peacemaking and who were willing to reflect on that experience with us. It was hard to know when class time started and ended because we were always learning.
When I returned to Northern Ireland this past summer – 11 years after my HECUA semester – I realized that I’m still learning from my experience. With HECUA, I learned a posture of reflective engagement – a way of learning for active participation in social change.
In other words, I am still a student of Northern Ireland.
After my semester in Northern Ireland, I returned to the summer camp in Wisconsin where I worked during my summers in college and where I had been a camper throughout my childhood. The camp is located a few miles from the Mississippi River among the ancient bluffs of the Driftless area of Wisconsin.
I remember having this realization, as if for the first time, that this special place in my life was built on Native American land. I recognize my privilege as a white person in this – a privilege that allowed me to live without a felt sense of this history. I may have known this history intellectually, but I experienced this knowledge in a new way after HECUA. I saw things anew. For example, driving through the unincorporated community of Victory, WI, I recognized that its name commemorated the final battle of the Black Hawk War in 1832.
Traveling through Northern Ireland, it felt as if every place had a long history and had been marked by conflict. Upon returning home I realized how true this was for my country as well. Nigel Glenny, my teacher in Northern Ireland, emphasized that we were not just learning about the conflicts of a distant and strange land, but that we should return home to think about the work of reconciliation in our own communities.
It reminds me of those oft-used lines from T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets: “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.”
When my spouse and I made our trip in summer 2018, I noticed some of the things that had changed in the past decade. For example, in 2007, I remember walking by a small British Army base on my way through the Bishop’s Gate of Derry’s City Walls on my way to my internship each day. At the time, there were tall towers with surveillance cameras pointed in all directions and, on occasion, an armed guard at the gate.
Today that same spot is a parking lot.
I also had the chance to walk across the new Peace Bridge in Derry, which connects the predominantly Protestant “Waterside” on the east bank with the predominantly Catholic “Cityside” on the west bank. In 2007, the options to cross the River Foyle were much more limited.
On the other hand, I also noticed some of the things that seemed the same. For instance, we saw the painted curbs and the competing flags of Nationalist and Unionist communities. We also noticed the tension in Ulster around the celebration of “The Twelfth” and the Protestant marching season in general. This was something I remember learning about but had not been present to see before.
The Twelfth commemorates the victory of William of Orange – the Protestant king – at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. On the Shankill Road, we watched the construction of a massive bonfire being built by Protestants to celebrate the day. It seemed like the fire was built just high enough and close enough to one of the “Peace Lines” so that the neighboring Catholic community could see it. We saw flags for the Ulster Volunteer Force – a paramilitary group – flying nearby.
Likewise, while we were in Derry, the news told of a few nights of youth from the Catholic Bogside throwing petrol bombs into the Fountain Estate – one of the remaining Protestant communities on the Cityside.
A lot had changed, and other things had not.
The highlight of my trip was reconnecting with HECUA’s Program Director Nigel Glenny and meeting his family and his dog Ralph.
My group was Nigel’s first semester with American HECUA students. His daughter had just been born when we arrived and now she is beginning Northern Ireland’s equivalent of middle school. Talking with Nigel made me remember how much I value his perspective. It didn’t take long for me to fall back into student-mode as we discussed Brexit, American accents, the 2016 U.S. election, and religion. We also drank coffee and ate scones with cream.
Coming home again, I wonder how things will continue to change in Northern Ireland. Will the “Peace Lines” – massive walls separating Catholic and Protestant communities – ever come down completely? Will the new bridges in Derry/Londonderry lead to new relationships and more trust? How will Brexit affect relations between communities and with the Republic of Ireland? Will the younger generation remember the lessons of the past as an older group of leaders begins to age and pass away?
Coming home again, I also wonder about the work of democracy and social change in my own country. My time in Northern Ireland has given me a new perspective on some of the movements and changes in the United States. For example, after events like the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville or the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, I think of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. In his 1995 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Heaney described the Troubles as “a quarter century of life-waste and spirit-waste, of hardening attitudes and narrowing possibilities that were the natural result of political solidarity, traumatic suffering and sheer emotional self-protectiveness.” How can my experience in HECUA help me engage, resist, and reflect upon this kind of “life-waste and spirit-waste” at home?
I hope to return to Northern Ireland again someday because the people and the place have become dear to me. I expect if I return I will again notice change and wonder about the hope for democracy and reconciliation. I expect I will always be a student of Northern Ireland.