by Aisling Meade, Programme Manager, EIL Intercultural Learning
Every year we coordinate a field trip to Belfast for American students in a study abroad program. We arrange for them to meet with various politicians, community workers, and organizations to provide a basic overview of the current situation in Northern Ireland and its culture.
We often arrange for these study abroad groups to attend service at Ian Paisley’s church in Belfast. It offers insight into the community and an opportunity to hear Dr. Paisley preach. Also, it usually results in Dr. Paisley inviting the group to his office for an informal question and answer session. Note, this is in the context of a broad program where views are heard from Catholics and Protestants, Nationalists, Republicans and Unionists.
On one occasion, a student in our group expressed doubts about attending the service. He came from a Irish Catholic background and had been brought up with a strong interest in Ireland, though I think it would be fair to say mostly from one perspective. As Ian Paisley is widely perceived as the personification of a particular type of unionism, this young man felt that he could not be in the same place as him.
After talking it over with his professor and our coordinator, he decided to attend the service but not meet Ian Paisley face to face. He was visibly affected during the service and when Ian Paisley came to meet the group, he hung back and did not go into the invited question and answer session. Our coordinator stayed with him and they talked a little about the strength of his feelings. The way he expressed it to our coordinator was that he felt it would betray his family.
Talking about this experience afterwards we couldn’t identify how we would have handled the situation differently, yet were left feeling slightly frustrated that the study abroad student missed out on a learning experience and indeed an opportunity to challenge Dr Paisley. Those question and answer sessions get quite robust! Many students from America are not afraid to ask the tough questions.
So I suppose the question this raises for study abroad is what can we do to help students better prepare for experiences which may evoke strong emotions and how can we help them process meetings and events, delivered for educational purposes, which may go against their own family background and long held beliefs.
This post was submitted by Aisling Meade, Programme Manager, EIL Intercultural Learning
Your thoughts and ideas are welcome via the comment section for this article.