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Immersion in Peace Irish studies trip gives students a global perspective

Not far from the rolling green hills peppered with sheep that serve as an iconic trademark of Ireland, are cities rebuilding from the devastation of years of cross-community warfare.

A nation terrorized by events like the 1916 Easter Rising and Bloody Sunday still actively works on finding reconciliation and peace in order to rebuild trust among its people. A peace wall stands tall in Belfast as a reminder of a more violent time when a physical barrier wasn’t only preferred, it was necessary. Murals throughout town depict men with machine guns, honoring those who lost their lives by defending their side of the conflict. Some of those murals are now being painted over, in efforts to tell a different tale – one of culture and pride, instead of sorrow and pain.

Since 2008, Saint Ignatius and Walsh Jesuit high schools have partnered to deliver a unique service-learning program in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Since then, other Catholic schools have participated as well. In 2011, Saint Ignatius Theology teacher Jim Brennan ’85 and Dan Bizga ’95, Theology teacher from Walsh Jesuit, paired up to deliver a unique service-learning program in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The program includes a semester-long online course in Catholic Social Teaching, history, literature and politics as they relate to the Irish Peace Process, culminating with the trip to Belfast. With a rigorous schedule, students hear from key figures in Irish politics including former paramilitary members and even have an opportunity to meet and question current world leaders. Plans are underway to include a visit to Scotland in the summer 2018 trip.

“Peace without justice will always be fragile,” says Professor John Brewer of the George Mitchell Institute at Queen’s University Belfast.

The students in this program experience first-hand the reality of this statement as they dig deeper into the complex history of the Irish conflict.

According to Jim, using the context of Irish conflict, government and peace resolution allows students to talk about the issues prevalent in our own government.

“We learned that peace will not come from a bunch of politicians arguing back and forth everyday,” Michael Fox ’18, Irish Studies student says. “It has to be people, socially, on the ground in the communities coming together for a common good and being able to equally share in all basic human rights fairly.”

Now that the weapons are down and fighting has ceased, the focus shifts to rebuilding community and evaluating the quality of life post-conflict.

One aspect of the trip is to learn about The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Historically, there has been a feeling of distrust of the PSNI by the Catholic community. After a visit to a local station, students see the steps that have been taken in training and riot control to help make advances between police and citizens of Northern Ireland.

The program has had lasting effects on those who have gone through it. Kathleen Brennan is an alumna of the Irish Studies program (in addition to being Jim Brennan’s daughter). The 2011 graduate from Our Lady of the Elms was so intrigued by her studies and travels through this program in 2010 that she decided to study abroad in Dublin as an undergraduate and complete her M.A. with Distinction in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice from Queen’s University Belfast. Her master’s thesis examined what those involved it Cleveland’s police reform process might learn from Northern Ireland’s process. She then took a role as a Public Service Fellow at The Cleveland Foundation working with the Cleveland Community Police Commission on issues of local police reform. Kathleen has served as a teacher for the Irish Studies program since 2014 and says students “realize the importance of listening to people with views different from their own.”

In drawing connections between Northern Ireland and the United States, students challenge their perspectives through the experiences they have on this trip. Because of family connections from many of their ancestors, students are able to find similarities between a country in conflict and their own.

“Students discover their own biases by hearing so many different sides to the same story,” Jim says. “Through this immersion, they are able to identify some level of truth and challenge their own assumptions.”

Students keep daily journals throughout the 17-day trip that allows them to reflect on all that they hear and see. The culmination of the course is a final exam and essay in which they bring everything they have learned and experienced together and attempt to draw lines between Northern Ireland and the U.S.

Inspired by travel while a student at Saint Ignatius, Bizga believes that exposing high school students to immersion trips is vitally important to their education.

“Learning about the peace process in Ireland could be boring in a traditional classroom. Transport those students abroad and your classroom becomes the streets of Belfast. Students see the Peace Walls, murals, and meet the men and women who lived and fought in the Troubles - this event becomes real and deeply impacts them,” says Bizga. “The curriculum becomes imprinted on their consciousness.”

Surfing along Achill Island

In the midst of lectures, interviews and additional coursework, students are exposed to a different side of Ireland as they take respite for a few days on Achill Island. Achill and Cleveland were named twin cities in 2003 and share many family ties. Here, students have the chance to surf in the North Atlantic Ocean, socialize with locals, taste traditional Irish fare and explore the Irish countryside. Making connections between family and friends back home makes the distance between our cities seem insignificant.

Overall, a theme emerges from the trip: Learning to live with and better understand the “other.” With active efforts towards building community, the people of Northern Ireland show that reconciliation is possible.

“We’re part of one human family,” says Jim. “This is Catholic Social Teaching in action. Regardless of political party, past experience, class or race, we are all in solidarity because we are all created in the image and likeness of God.”

(Featured in the fall issue of "Saint Ignatius Magazine")

To learn more about Global Education at Saint Ignatius, visit www.ignatius.edu/Global-Education

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