Emma McBride is a junior at the University of Minnesota, majoring in Political Science, and minoring in Social Justice. She spent the spring of 2015 enrolled in HECUA’s semester-long, 16 credit program in the Twin Cities: Inequality in America. Emma chose to continue her education with HECUA in the spring, traveling to Northern Ireland to study abroad with our Democracy and Social Change in Northern Ireland program, based in Derry/Londonderry. Read Emma’s meditation on community formation, travel, and growth below.
A month into my second HECUA program, I began to reflect on how unusual this experience is and how fortunate I am to have been able to be a part of it not just once, but twice. As a sophomore at the University of Minnesota I decided to enroll in the Inequality in America program, based in St. Paul. A few weeks into Inequality In America I knew that I wanted to continue down the HECUA road, so I signed up for Democracy and Social Change in Northern Ireland. We are based in Londonderry-Derry and take our classes at the Magee campus of Ulster University. We learn about the Northern Ireland conflict and peace and resolution. Like the Inequality program, we engage through classroom lecture, discussions, field visits, and individual internships.
In the first week, we were presented with a list of internship opportunities. The internship I chose was The Rainbow Project, an organization that works to improve the health and well-being of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender people and their families in Northern Ireland. I work with LGBT youth. I facilitate three youth groups- under 18s, over 18s, and trans-specific. We have also been working with other youth organizations around Derry to facilitate a shared space for all young people. I am so thankful for the opportunity to work under an amazing and brilliant supervisor and learn from so many incredible young people.
The following piece is a reflection on what these two experiences have meant to me as I near the halfway mark of the Northern Ireland program, and as I try to prepare myself to return to campus in just a few short months.
I sit down, notebook in hand, with the “History of Queerness” mural directly behind me and a group of people around my age engaging in friendly Irish banter. Their language is the same as mine, but it feels so distant at this time and in this place. In walks one of The Rainbow Project volunteers. They sit down, look over at me, and say, “The floor is all yours.” In that moment, with ten or so delightful young people looking to me, I think to myself, “How did I get here?”
Rewind a whole year to the moment I decided to do HECUA. Maybe decided is the wrong word because I often feel as though it is something that I fell into. Despite how many information sessions I went to, and how many one-on-one meetings with HECUA alumni, I did not know what was about to unfold. When I signed up for Inequality In America I was wide-eyed and unbelievably unprepared. Honestly, I was a little intimidated by the whole ‘Never Be The Same’ motto- yet I was filled to the brim with the excitement of getting out of a standard classroom. I had thought far more about what I was leaving behind and less about what I was joining. However, within the first few hours on the very first day of my HECUA journey, it became very clear I was entering a unique world.
HECUA Northern Ireland students shortly after their arrival in Derry~Londonderry.
Right from the start, my classmates bravely shared stories that I had not yet earned the right to know, but was nonetheless trusted to hold onto. Looking back months later, from Derry, Northern Ireland, I see that the stories we shared and the risks we took within hours of knowing each other were the foundation that turned our classroom into a community.
It’s not all peace signs and rainbows. We’re not always going to agree and there will be times when I won’t say the right things, but I’ve learned that fear of saying the wrong thing is not a good reason to say nothing at all. As a group we learn how to work through these moments of tension, partially because we have to in such a small community, and partially because they’re the ones who are going to be there after an intense field visit, or a hard day at my internship. Sometimes, talking about oppression, inequality, and conflict all day is mentally and emotionally exhausting. I have found that it is nearly impossible not to bottle up all of that pain and carry it with me. Most days I use all that pain as a source of empowerment, but there are also days when it simply just weighs me down. On those bad days, on the days when it all feels too much, I have people behind me who are there to take that weight off, or even just bear the burden with me. And that is what this program is all about- a community of people who push you and challenge you, and at the end of the day, hold you up.
Flash forward a year after first deciding to do HECUA, and I’m in Northern Ireland a month into my second HECUA program, interning at The Rainbow Project, spending hours in a mini bus with nine people who are both my classmates and my flatmates, and thinking to myself, “How did I get here?”
Here does not mean Northern Ireland, nor does it mean The Rainbow Project. Honestly, I am not entirely sure where here is, but I do know that here is not where I shuffled from class to class and spent hours studying for tests. By the time I return to the University of Minnesota, it’ll have been fourteen months since I attended classes on campus, which means that a quarter of my college education will have been spent outside of my actual college.
Thinking about returning to campus terrifies me. I wonder if I’ll be able to adapt back to a typical classroom experience and if I’ll feel really isolated without a strong community of people behind me who I see at least every other day, or in the case of Northern Ireland, see every morning, afternoon, and night. But then I realize that those communities will always be there, even from a distance. I’ve made friends and allies for life and I’ve formed connections in the social justice world that I can turn to when I need support, or just a cup of tea and some meaningful conversation.
So, with those ten young people looking to me, I take a deep breathe and introduce myself. In that moment, I know that I am right where I want to be- learning directly from people in different communities, having tough conversations, and challenging my comfort zone. I may be going back to campus in a few months, but it is clear that my journey with HECUA is far from over.