Alumni Profile Beyond the Classroom: HECUA at 50

Why HECUA? Why Northern Ireland? Why Now?

Student is walking along rocky coastline. Waves crash against dark circular rocks

In this series of HECUA at 50, we will be featuring alumni, consortium members and other community members whose stories weave together to tell the story of who we are, where we’ve been, and where we are going.

In this post, we’re highlighting a recent alum. Giorgia Piantanida studied abroad with HECUA’s program Conflict, Peace and Transition in spring 2019. She graduated from Swarthmore College with a major in Peace and Conflict studies. In this post, Giorgia reflects on her time in Derry-Londonderry. Read on for story of how Giorgia’s experience of community-based, experiential study abroad continues to impact and influence her life.

I was already set up for a semester in Australia my junior year, when inspiration struck. Why limit my abroad experience to one semester, when my school had the option to do an entire year? I asked around for programs that would help deepen my understanding and knowledge of peace and conflict, and everyone’s immediate response was, “Look at the HECUA Northern Ireland program.”

I was hesitant to do so. I could barely pinpoint where Northern Ireland was on a map, much less why it was a hub of conflict studies. My limited knowledge was something called the Troubles had happened, in which the IRA was a player. I was clueless, but interested. I was quickly put in touch with HECUA, as well as a peer who was in Northern Ireland at the time, and I was met with welcome and patience. My endless questions were answered with care and detail, and even though some were silly, I was never made to feel like I shouldn’t or couldn’t ask. It was made very clear to me that for HECUA, creating a welcoming environment in which the students were supported was the most important thing. After about a week, I applied to the program. When everything fell into place at last, I felt ready and nervous about my adventure across the pond.

Rocky coastline opens up to blue ocean and sky.
The north coast, with an old castle on the left cliff. Our road trips to new places always included stops to enjoy the scenery, and stretch our legs a bit. Photo by Giorgia Piantanida

Northern Ireland is a place unlike any other. I went with the goal of studying how government can be created and sustained after mass conflict, but that was not nearly the most important thing I learned. Through the combination of an internship I was emotionally unprepared for, a professor who puts his heart into every meeting, and a diverse cohort of uniquely wonderful people, I had some of the best and most important times of my life. It is hard to put into words how much that semester forever impacted how I make my way through the world, but a short story might do the trick.

At the end of the semester, we made presentations about our individual internships as part of our concluding classes. We were asked to reflect on our time as interns, and talk a bit about what our organization did. On paper, it seemed like a standard project that I had done before. Even while making my presentation slides, I felt as if I was making another project, prepping for another presentation.

However, something clicked when I got up and started speaking. With my professor and friends listening, I choked up. I looked at pictures of the Bogside and Brandywell Initiative (BBI), people who had welcomed me with open arms and a cup of warm tea, and felt an immense warmth in my heart.

At the Bogside and Brandywell Initiative, the mission is to bring the deeply divided Derry-Londonderry community together. There is a big peace wall that separates the historically Protestant neighborhood from the historically Catholic one, and BBI is at the helm of the work being done to slowly diminish and remove the wall.

The infamous peace wall that separates the protestant and catholic neighborhoods. The tower in the distance is the last remnant of the Derry jail, now home to a museum. All of this is seen from the historic Derry wall that surrounds the historic part of the city. Photo by Giorgia Piantanida.
The infamous peace wall that separates the protestant and catholic neighborhoods. The tower in the distance is the last remnant of the Derry jail, now home to a museum. All of this is seen from the historic Derry wall that surrounds the historic part of the city. Photo by Giorgia Piantanida.

The year before I interned with them, they had managed an agreement with the residents to leave a gate at the bottom of the wall open, since it is regularly closed. However, the gate remained open for about a week, after which time pressure from the residents forced it shut again. It was an event that had truly thrown the organization for a loop, and brought their project back to square one. While I interned for them, I attended a lot of meetings about government funding for the wall project, in which government representatives would ask for updates and future projects/events/goals to see how much funding BBI should get.

Part of a mural in Belfast commemorating the death of a Protestant youth. It was one among three on one small street, and one among many in a country full of street art. Photo by Giorgia Piantanida.

I also had the opportunity to travel to Belfast and meet with other organizations that did similar work on other peace walls there, so that updates could be shared, and tips to success could be swapped. Outside of meetings, I helped plan for events we were hosting, whether it meant printing tickets for a teddy bear booth and laminating them, or make a presentation about the history of the Holocaust. The one constant I could always rely on was the craic – all the wonderful, weird and interesting conversations we had in the office. Whether it was getting a lecture about calling the country ‘the North’ instead of Northern Ireland, or hearing about someone’s daughter and her successful Irish lessons, I was always enthralled and learning something new. Now, two years later, I miss the weird expressions I picked up the most – responding ‘happy days’ when a story of success is told, or walking into a room and demanding ‘what’s the craic?’.

Everyone at BBI was working for a better tomorrow, often without support or gratitude, and even though they had so much to dwell upon or struggle with, they chose to keep going. They woke every day and worked for more cohesion, more peace, both within themselves and the community they loved so well. I learned more from them and our loud discussions that I ever had in any class or from any textbook, and I was immensely sad to leave them.

I have always hated goodbyes, and this goodbye had been so much more painful and difficult than I had expected. When I presented them, forcing the tears to stay back, I kept fiddling with my new bracelet – the one they had gifted me when I left. Two years later, it is one of the few bracelets that has never left my wrist. Every time I look at it, every time I touch it, I am reminded of the immense humanity and strength of people and communities. I am reminded that though the work is long, I cannot abandon it. I am reminded that a big important life does not only exist on the pages of the New York Times, but also in the narrow streets of the town you love, doing the work that transforms even just one person.

We are living in an immensely fraught, difficult time. In the United States, deep political and ideological divisions tear us apart, as structural racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. keep us from having honest discussions. As a military and nuclear power, our state is constantly perpetrating violence against foreign nations, many times impacting innocent civilians. We are living in a country that is inches from conflict that will tear us apart from the inside out, and the work to prevent that, or even honestly discuss it, seems insurmountable at times.

Right now, we need honesty. We need humanity and allyship. These days, I fiddle with my bracelet more than usual, if only to bring myself back to a place of honesty, a place that must be truthful about their past if they want to have a future. I used to mainly think about Derry-Londonderry, whose very name is heavily tainted in a bloody history, but now I think about the United States more and more. Honesty and historical accuracy will lead us forward, and we have much to learn from the people who inhabit those six counties above the Republic of Ireland.

 

mural of five faces painted on a dark building.
A mural of the TV show Derry Girls, which were releasing a new season while we were studying there. The show was a popular topic to discuss over steaming cups of tea at the office. Photo by Giorgia Piantanida.

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