Our Wandering Minds
UB Students Learn (Way) Outside the Classroom
Henry Miller said of travel, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things,” and the UB students who recently participated in international summer programs might agree with him. Their out-of-the-classroom adventures—a creative writing residency in Northern Ireland and an honors service trip to Guatemala—featured opportunities such as performing in an international literary festival and hiking the rim of an active volcano. But being immersed in other cultures also allowed them to reflect on their own worldviews and consider new ideas, both abroad and back home.
Reflecting the Voice of Northern Ireland
“After the first week, we began to say to the students, ‘You look different,’” recalls Kimberley Lynne, Spotlight UB theater events coordinator who taught playwriting during the monthlong residency in Armagh, Northern Ireland’s oldest city. “This was an extraordinary experience that changed their lives.”
Three UB undergrads and two UB graduate students developed short plays and wrote poetry during the July residency, coordinated by the Institute for Education in International Media and funded in part by Spotlight UB and by Irish Charities of Maryland. When the organization approached Lynne about piloting the program, she was intrigued by the possibilities.
“Very few international writing residencies strive to reflect the voice of the host culture,” Lynne says. “Northern Ireland has a rich tradition of folklore and storytelling and a complex political history, and the students chose to explore those influences in their work.”
An Armagh hostel served as home base, and the students attended classes in the AmmA Centre, a modern facility built during Ireland’s economic boom that features well-equipped computer labs and a recording and mixing studio.
“We would have lectures and discussion in this high-tech setting, then walk out into a little beautiful town and pass by ruins of a 13th-century Franciscan friary,” Lynne recalls.
“There’s a story about everything you see, and usually more than one.”
The curriculum focused intensively on The Troubles, the term used to refer to three decades of violence between elements of Northern Ireland’s British/Protestant unionist and Irish/Roman Catholic nationalist communities. Although a peace accord was signed 15 years ago, ramifications of The Troubles are ongoing: More than 90 percent of children still attend either exclusively Roman Catholic or Protestant schools, and physical walls separate neighborhoods segregated by religion. One such wall, the Cupar Way “peace wall” in Belfast [pictured on the cover of this issue], is longer, taller and older than the Berlin Wall that once separated East and West Germany.
Joan Weber, professor of arts integration at Towson University, served as the residency’s second faculty member and facilitated discussion of plays by renowned Irish playwrights Brian Friel and Martin Lynch. Weber says she reflected on her own paradigms as she experienced day-to-day life in the segregated society.
“As Americans, we are intrigued by the codes that have been created to identify people as Protestant or Catholic in Northern Ireland,” she says. “At home, we tell people apart by looking at them, getting many of our cues from appearance. But the Irish use things like accents, surnames, where someone goes to school or the neighborhood they live in.”
Graduate criminal justice student Courtney Smith, B.S. ’11, took the title and setting of her play, All Roads Lead to Belfast, from the circumstances of her arrival. When Lynne and Weber picked her up at the airport, the trio got lost on back roads trying to find Armagh.
“[Lynne] kept saying, ‘We don’t want to go toward Belfast.’ But no matter which way we turned, all the signs pointed there,” Smith recalls.
The characters in Smith’s play meet for the first time when Jessica, an American, comes to visit her Irish pen pal, Emma. “When Jessica asks about the time for Mass, Emma, a Protestant, realizes that her friend is Roman Catholic,” Smith says. In the play, Emma shifts from being delighted to be with Jessica to feeling uncomfortable and suspicious—both “physically lost [driving Jessica] and also ‘lost’ in her thinking,” Smith adds.
Rachel Wooley, a graduate student in UB’s Creative Writing & Publishing Arts program, says the ancient sites and artifacts she saw caused her to think about ideas of identity, roots and permanence. Wooley, who focused on poetry during her time in Northern Ireland and was mentored by Irish poet Nessa O’Mahony, also found inspiration in Irish folklore.
“It was a writing class, cultural immersion, a history lesson and lots of fun.”
There’s a story about everything you see, and usually more than one,“ she says. In her poem “The Fall of Giants,” Wooley assumes the voice of a mythological creature, a giant who, according to legend, helped build the Giant’s Causeway, 40,000 interlocking basalt rock formations on Northern Ireland’s northeast coast.
Kerrin Smith, an undergraduate English student specializing in creative writing, says Tony Kennedy—a specialist in cross-border issues such as Northern Ireland’s integration into the Republic of Ireland and one of the residency’s several guest speakers—particularly influenced her. Smith wrote about a young terrorist whose girlfriend has been murdered. When the ghost of his dead girlfriend returns, he begins to piece together the repressed memory of committing murder to avenge her death.
“Kennedy spoke about the inheritance of tensions and the difficulties people have addressing them face to face,” Kerrin Smith says. “My character is flawed in that he is so immersed [in his beliefs that] he is unable to grasp the complexities of the situation.”
During their stay, the students also traveled to Belfast, Londonderry and Dublin; workshopped with Hanna Slättne, literary manager of the Tinderbox Theatre Co. in Belfast; and enjoyed lunch with playwright Martin Lynch and tea with brand-new U.S. Consul General Gregory S. Burton, who had just come to Ireland from Afghanistan.
The students say they felt embraced in areas not frequented by Americans—and never more so than at the John Hewitt International Summer School, a creative writing festival that crowned their Armagh experience in late July. In keeping with the “State of Hope” theme, Mary Robinson, the first female president of the Republic of Ireland, provided the keynote speech for the event. The UB students and faculty joined the featured workshops and also presented their 10-minute plays—or poems, in Wooley’s case—penned since arriving in Armagh for an international audience. The performances didn’t end there; Kerrin Smith, Wooley and Weber were among the 12 attendees chosen to share the additional work they developed during the festival workshops.
“Creative outlets such as the festival have served as powerful forces for reconciliation and remembrance and safe venues to explore differences,” says Weber, who coached the group of students before their festival performances. For most, it was the first time they had read their work in public.
“We were so proud,” Lynne says. “In this very prestigious setting, they were very poised and acted as art ambassadors, helping to continue conversation through theater.” And this creative initiative didn’t end once the students returned home after their monthlong immersion: Program participants performed their original works developed in Northern Ireland as part of Spotlight UB’s fall 2012 season and at the Maryland Irish Festival in early November.
Kerrin Smith sums up the program: “It was a writing class, cultural immersion, a history lesson and lots of fun.”
Changing Lives in Guatemala
While UB’s budding playwrights and poets were hard at work in Northern Ireland, a group of four students in the University’s Helen P. Denit Honors Program found themselves getting their hands dirty more than 5,000 miles away in Guatemala in mid-July. Created in partnership with the Phoenix Project of Global Vision International, an organization that sponsors a wide range of environmental, conservation and community development efforts in more than 25 countries, the honors program’s eight-day Service-Abroad Adventure enabled students to assist Guatemalan families in need—mainly by helping to build energy-efficient stoves in an effort to reduce widespread air pollution.
As most Mayan villagers use the equivalent of an open fire for cooking, they face huge risks: Not only is the cost of the wood a substantial financial burden, but nearly 2 million people worldwide—predominantly women and children in developing countries—die each year from indoor air pollution created by cooking fires, according to the World Health Organization. To help alleviate this crisis, programs like those of Global Vision International pair travel opportunities with service missions.
In this case, the UB students first spent time in the city of Antigua, Guatemala, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage site surrounded by three volcanoes. The group lived with a Spanish-speaking host family; navigated markets, street fairs, a beauty pageant and historical sites; and learned conversational Spanish during 10 hours of lessons.
“We learned the equivalent of a year of Spanish in less than a week,” says Benjamin Paul, a junior in UB’s Community Studies and Civic Engagement program. “And the lessons were more conversation than instruction, talking with the teacher one on one about our culture and theirs—which was great, because in Antigua, pretty much our only option to communicate was to speak Spanish.”
Next, the UB cohort traveled to Santa Maria de Jesus, a rural community located partway up the nonactive volcano Agua and about 45 minutes from Antigua. The students used their newly polished language skills to work alongside local families and under the direction of Spanish-speaking master masons to build new cement-and-brick stoves. According to Global Vision International, these stoves are designed to reduce smoke and carbon dioxide by roughly 70 percent—which in turn helps to increase life expectancy by 10-15 years.
A kitchen construction project was a natural fit for Dave Edwards, B.S. ’12, a restaurant manager and chef who plans to use his business administration degree to open a sustainable, ecofriendly bed and breakfast in Costa Rica. He recalls that building the stove without modern tools and conveniences such as running water was challenging and that the multigenerational family he worked with was extremely hospitable.
“They were talking and joking with me while I was digging dirt in the yard and mixing cement on the floor,” he recalls. “You have to really work to keep up when the mason gives you a task. Finally, I was smearing the cement between the bricks with my hands.”
On the first day, Edwards’ host family supplied him with a Western snack: tortilla chips and a Coke. When Edwards shared his fondness for a local food—chicharrón, or fried pork rinds—they appeared on his next work break. But the family’s most memorable outreach came on the final day of stove-building, he says.
“[The family] gave me a hand-knitted scarf they had made, which was a touching and surprising gift,” he says.
That’s just the kind of strong, cross-cultural connection that the trip’s organizers hoped would result from their efforts. “UB has so many nontraditional students that we wanted to develop an alternative to the typical study-abroad model, with opportunities for scholarship, personal and leadership development and community engagement,” says Kelly McPhee, B.A. ’08, M.A. ’11, program manager for the Helen P. Denit Honors Program.
The original idea for this initiative came courtesy of Amanda Grant, a UB junior who had volunteered in Bolivia on a church mission trip the summer before her freshman year. “Being in a developing country forced me to stretch myself, deal with cultural dissonance and bridge the language barrier, and it increased my passion for volunteerism,” Grant says. “I thought it would be neat to create a similar international-service experience for college students.”
“This is experiential learning at its best; these students changed people’s lives, and their lives were changed, too.”
Grant approached McPhee, who was immediately enthusiastic; the two traveled to Guatemala in summer 2011 to pilot the program. “[This initiative] was a great fit for our students,” McPhee says. “They received six months of preparation, including research, planning, team-building and fundraising.”
To complement the trip, the students participated in a semester-long series of Thought for Food events in the spring, exploring food and agricultural policies from a variety of perspectives, including films and lectures. In addition, during an alternative spring break in March, they helped create a new sensory garden of highly scented and textured plants at Real Food Farm in Baltimore’s Clifton Park—part of an effort to improve neighborhood access to healthy food and to “help the younger generation associate with food that doesn’t come out of a package,” explains McPhee, who coordinated the springtime events.
While in Guatemala, the UB students dedicated the bulk of their time to community-enhancing efforts like building stoves and teaching at a local school—but they managed to squeeze in a bit of sightseeing. One of their most memorable pursuits involved climbing the active volcano Pacaya on a three-hour hike that began in a rainforest-like atmosphere that changed to bare, black surface. The students roasted marshmallows in the steam emerging from vents in the volcanic rock.
Paul recalls the spectacular view from the summit. “Seeing 360 degrees around, looking down at the city with the other volcanoes in the distance makes you feel very small,” he says.
But the entirety of what the students accomplished in Guatemala was monumental, McPhee says. “This is experiential learning at its best; these students changed peoples lives, and their lives were changed, too.”