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Risky world? Time to study abroad

Outbreaks of terror, war and violence catch most of us off-guard. Unrest surprises. “We didn’t know how bad the situation had gotten”... “it seems like such a peaceful district”... “feelings were a lot stronger than we thought”... “that’s a whole section of the Internet I don’t know anything about”...

Informed citizens are just as critical for preventive action and timely warning as informed leaders. Well-thought-out, engaged education abroad trains both. To illustrate this, here are some cases drawn from IFE student experiences in a recent hot spot: Brussels, Belgium.

Catherine, a student of International Relations, enrolled in IFE’s Brussels Field Study and Internship Program as a way of pursuing her specialization in security studies abroad. For field experience Catherine worked as an intern with the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, an independent think tank and watch service founded and operated by a former intelligence officer. As it happens, the so-called Arab Spring broke out on her watch. The ringside seat she had as she drafted nearly-real-time briefings on what was going on in Egypt led her to an idea for research: apply her IR theory background to an analysis of what to expect next. The resulting article, “Four Possible Outcomes when Revolution Overtakes a Sultanist Regime: The case of Egypt” is just the sort of academic gain that can be realized by a rigorous approach applied in a hands-on setting. It’s also the type of training that builds an informed citizenry.

Fast forward a few months and Nathaniel, a religion major, shows up at IFE in Brussels wanting to learn more about Islam in Europe. Working full-time with the Center for Equal Opportunity and against Discrimination, a combined research and activist center, Nathaniel began closely following the national debate on full veils and constitutional reform. His research for the Center led him to conduct in-depth interviews with a dozen local actors including Islamic community groups, sounding out their various points of view on observance, culture and integration. Nathaniel’s findings have lost none of their pertinence in the light of recent traumatic events; true integration involves an effort by the majority population as well. Stigmatization may have the opposite effect of the one desired, breeding separation and radical communitarist reactions. Readers of his work would have been less taken by surprise by events since.

A year later, with refugee and migration questions not yet on the front page in Europe, IFE student Rebecca, majoring in history and political science, takes up duties as an assistant researcher at Belgium’s Egmont Institute, otherwise known as the Royal Institute for International Relations. Exposed to many diplomatic events, issues and actors, Rebecca brought her research to bear on what she and her advisors felt was a crucial, basic question: identity crisis in Europe. Rebecca took a historical look at European identity from the beginning of European integration. Read in 2016 her conclusion seems downright prophetic: “IF the EU focuses its efforts on the development of a European identity based on, for example, a sense of multiculturalism and diversity, it will be closer than ever to the level of integration many seek.” With this statement, Rebecca neatly captures not only the problem as it has bloomed since, but also the best basis for a European solution.

Still more recently, just before Mollenbeek became a household term, an IFE student, working in a socio-political research center, analyzed the problem of economic integration, using the Moroccan population of Brussels as a case study. In the last few months, another IFE student, working with a leading Belgian NGO working with immigrant families for their integration, was led to reflect on how such agencies, even with the best of intentions and policies, can unwittingly reinforce feelings of exclusion. No diagram needed to understand the crucial importance of this sort of analysis for understanding and responding adequately to the current malaise.

In fact, the lessons learned – and taught – by these student researchers find additional value beyond the Belgian case, as they and we go on to reflect on Europe, and on events in our own countries including the US.

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