The Experience of the Junior Year Abroad Network

By: Colin Steele

February 16, 2012

The following is a version of a speech given in celebration of the work of last year’s group of Junior Year Abroad Network correspondents. There were a total of 55 of us last year spread across 24 countries – mine being Turkey and Ireland – who contributed periodic blog posts on the cultural, social, political and religious dynamics of the places we lived.

Think how the world has changed in the past 18 months. Since we JYAN correspondents departed for our various study abroad locations, the world has seen a deepening Euro crisis, the IMF in the Euro zone, riots in London and Athens, an ever-intensifying war in Mexico, an earthquake and tsunami in Japan, a British royal wedding, the death of Usama bin Laden, the Arab Spring, the rise of the 99 Percent and #OccupyEverywhere. We were, more even than the average JYAN group, witnesses to history.

But there’s one event I’d like to highlight most of all. It was the event upon which the last year – and some of our own study abroad programs – hinged, and it may well be the real start of the 21st Century. That event is the self-immolation of the Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi on 17th December 2010.

Try to picture it for a moment: a young man, about five years older than most of us, decides one day that enough is enough. He’s been humiliated by the police for the last time. So he does what most of us would do: he goes to the governor’s office to complain. Refused admittance, he does something few of us would do: he screams at the official’s closed door, “If you don’t see me, I’ll burn myself!” Then he gets a can of gasoline, goes out into the street and does just that.

Bouazizi’s self-immolation was ultimately a cry of voicelessness that has since translated into almost every language on earth. Looking at what has happened since then – spreading Arab Spring revolts, pro-democracy protests in Russia, democratic movement in Myanmar, Occupiers demanding a fair shake from the “One Percent” – it is clear that Bouazizi’s death was really a witness to the voicelessness that defines so many of the seven billion lives on this planet. The social-media revolutions spurred by that event are remarkable not for their media but for their message: the growing voice of people who never thought to have a say in their own affairs.

I’d submit a few aspects of my own year abroad as evidence. I spent the autumn in Georgetown’s villa in Turkey, a four-month sojourn in paradise on the Mediterranean coast. Part of that program – perhaps for the last time – was a week-long study trip to Syria. We drove east following the coast, then turned 90 degrees south into Syria and kept driving as far as Damascus.

While there, we travelled with a local guide and had special strictures on what we could wear and even on how we could act. We could not point at the omnipresent pictures of President Bashar al-Assad. Most of all, we had to remember that we were under constant observation by the many uniformed police we could see and most of all by the un-uniformed ones we could not. (It was the one time that having a group of 11 women and four men was genuinely stressful.)

Upon crossing the border back into Turkey, we all breathed a sigh of relief and discovered we both knew and liked the Turkish language far better than we believed just a few days before. We could not know it then, but within a few months the Syrian people themselves would rise up against those strictures that have defined their entire lives. Over ten months later, there is a news story nearly every day about more killing and repression as the same Assad whose picture we could not point at guns down his own people to keep them safely silent.

Though it was not nearly as explosive, I likewise felt stirrings of popular resentment in Ireland. Feelings of voicelessness and chafing at others’ meddling in one’s national affairs are almost congenitally Irish, but it is indicative of the globalized world we live in that the Queen of England was welcomed warmly and without incident on her first visit to the country but every time I left my flat, I passed a wall on which someone had spray-painted “IMF SCUM OUT!” in three-foot-high letters. In the age of government by “technocrats” never put to a ballot, meddling and misrule are no longer restricted to monarchs.

I am sure all of us correspondents saw, lived or were in some way affected by voicelessness last year. But I suspect most of us saw reasons for hope in the midst of all that. As I see it, the very fact of our all being safely back in Georgetown is a tremendous reason for hope. Think of all that we gained individually in our travels and reflections on them. Now multiply that by 55 – the number of us who participated in last year’s JYAN. By my count (assuming we averaged six months per person per trip), that comes out to 27.5 years of international experience, at least 110 blog posts, 110 reads and comments on each other’s posts, 55 faculty responses to our writings, probably over half the world’s countries visited and a couple of dozen new languages (or parts thereof) learned. That is a tremendous amount of voicefulness.

And we have been heard, thanks largely to a university that is willing to send us all over the globe and to literally bet money that we’d have worth-while observations to make on our travels and those of our fellows. The beauty of JYAN is that it transforms 55 individual junior years abroad into a network of people whose voices will only grow in reach and impact as our generation assumes responsibility for this earth that we’ve crisscrossed in our travels.

As the JYAN experience attests, when we travel (per Georgetown’s core Jesuit values) as “contemplatives in action” and “women and men for others,” we are able to realize that it was not just Georgetown that bet on us last year. None of our experiences would have been possible without the hospitality, compassion and capacity for kindnesses small and large of more people than any of us can count…times 55. Even the sometimes-unrecognizable kindnesses of the RyanAir staff helped – or at least gave us extended opportunities for cultural exchange in transit between where they think Paris is and where we think Paris is. But even when things were not quite as predictable as we expect them to be in the States, plenty of people were willing to help us get where we going or help us in some way even when they had no apparent reason to do so other than seeing another person in need.

Thus we learn through travel to trust our fellow human beings. In making new homes in new cultures we expand both our horizons and our perspective. If there is one thing that JYAN brought home for me, it is that the globalized world is not flat, but rounder than it has ever been. Yes, bigger and faster linkages are growing between people, countries and corporations like never before, but what is becoming ever clearer in those connections is that the real world is just like Networld: one global societal fabric. Skype lends a quality to the transatlantic friendships I made last year that snail mail never could – I acknowledge in a very real way the roundness of the earth every time I have to calculate time zones to set up a video chat.

Unfortunately, the global world looks just as flat in daily life as it always has. Even on Georgetown’s Hilltop campus, it takes a certain amount of willfulness to remind oneself that the world is indeed bigger than our selves or our little gated corner of Washington, D.C. To successfully navigate the (round) globalized world, we will have to literally expand our horizons of experience and compassion. For me, that process could not begin in earnest until I travelled and lived abroad.

Though I have read the newspaper every morning for most of my life, it took the expansion of my physical horizons beyond the visual horizon of the east coast of the United States before I could truly start to understand simultaneously how big and how small the world really is. Based on visual horizons alone, our daily experience supports a flat-earth – or worse, literally egocentric – worldview. Until and unless human horizons of compassion are expanded through experience to match the full 360 degrees of the earth, we cannot hope to realize the scale of global co-operation we will need to achieve in this century.

To break out of daily perspective requires expanding experience. One of my favorite examples is modern Europe’s attempt at a borderless society and common currency. Whereas my mother told me horror stories of having to change lots of money and endure dozens of border checks as she took trains across Europe 30 years ago, I could withdraw cash from any Bank of Ireland ATM, fly to the Continent, get one passport stamp and travel wherever I wanted from there. It struck me that this would be impossible without the implicit trust of each country that everyone else’s economic and border-security practices were good enough for all. The Schengen and Euro agreements that govern travel and commerce on the most fought-over piece of territory on the planet are not only a tremendous boon to tourists and businesspeople, but bets on humanity itself. That they obtain on a continent that has seen an ethnic cleansing campaign in my own lifetime is truly remarkable; I cannot imagine my grandparents would ever have guessed that one would be able to travel the Continent on one currency and one passport stamp within their lifetimes.

To those of us who travel, however, it is now the reversal of that condition that is truly unthinkable. That has not stopped fear and ignorance from threatening both the border agreements and the currency agreements now that the going is tough, however: “average” people – especially those who do roam the Continent like Americans abroad – now feel voiceless in the elite-driven politics of Europeanization, fearful of their neighbors (or their neighbors’ immigrants) and terrified at the possibility that some other country’s fiscal woes will sink their own economies. The Eurocrats have created a brave but fragile model of international co-operation, but the current economic crisis has shown that the “European project” cannot and will not succeed unless its ideals can be picked up by the majority as well as the Continental elites.

Spending time in other countries and cultures can also help us to more productively criticize our own. Many of us have returned with a much deeper sense of what we appreciate about the United States and the ways in which we would like to see it improve. This is vital – we will only be able to grow and improve upon experience if we can take criticism. There is nothing so off-putting in a relationship as one-way communication, particularly if it is often critical. Proposing that the United States adopt a policy of no apology and no retreat is as ludicrous as suggesting that a person take the same attitude towards the people he or she lives with. That person, no matter how powerful he felt, would find himself without friends in short order.

Thus, it is equally vital to realize that America’s voice in the world is weighty, easily distorted, but above all influential. That influence can be used for good or ill; as long as we remain a bright star on the world stage, it is incumbent upon us to consider carefully how we play our role. We have an unsleeping audience of seven billion people. We owe it to them and to ourselves to play it well. After all, as the world finds its voice, we will be emulated or “exceptional” to the degree that we effectively wield the soft power of our morals rather than the hard power of our arms.

This is the real lesson of Mohamed Bouazizi. His death marked the beginning of the defining social trend of the 21st Century: the struggle to make their voices heard of all seven billion people with whom we share both a planet and a destiny. The defining image of this century will more likely be the human megaphone than the mushroom cloud. Truth will out – whether on Twitter, YouTube or WikiLeaks.

If that is indeed the case, we might do well to re-discover the old wisdom that our two ears and one mouth mean that we are to listen twice as much as we talk. Adding several billion people to the global conversation is going to be complicated and contentious, and great courage will be required of us if we are to succeed – i.e., survive. In the words of John F. Kennedy, “If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

Finally, as the class of 2012 prepares to graduate and begin to assume responsibility for this world, let us remember the perceptive and prophetic words of Fr Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, that are inscribed in the Intercultural Center: “The age of nations is past. It remains to us now, if we do not wish to perish, to set aside the old prejudices and build the Earth.”
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The Experience of the Junior Year Abroad Network