As Jesse Fox (C '21) stepped out into the cold October air above the Waterloo Underground station in London, he was taken aback by a sight ripped straight from the evening news. Thousands of Brits marching by, their faces painted blue, waving European Union flags above their heads. Jesse was abroad for the semester and had flown back from a short trip that morning. The unusual bustle at the Tube stop near his apartment was shocking.
“I asked someone, I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ They were like, ‘There’s a huge protest today in Trafalgar Square,’” he says.
Jesse decided to follow the protesters into Trafalgar Square, a public space in Central London where a large anti–Brexit protest was unfolding.
“I think they said that over a million people throughout the UK that day marched to remain in the EU,” he reflects. “It was just sort of crazy seeing everyone, seeing the signs.”
Instagram and Facebook posts of Penn students skydiving in Australia, picnicking in front of the Eiffel Tower, or jetting across Europe on the weekends often crowd the social media feeds of those students studying abroad. Abroad is seen as a break from life at Penn and a chance to explore, let loose, and take advantage of lax alcohol policies. But as students kick back for a few months, political conflict bubbles up under many of the places where they choose to study.
Every year Penn Abroad sends more than 2,500 students to over 50 countries for semesters abroad, summer programs, and global seminars. The stated goal of Penn Abroad is to provide “every Penn student with a meaningful global experience.” Students from all schools fly across the world to program locations ranging from Egypt to Argentina or even to Hungary.
Jesse, a junior studying Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, was abroad at King’s College in London last semester. He was looking forward to his classes on British politics, but he didn’t expect to arrive in the United Kingdom during a real–life politics lesson: Brexit.
London is a popular spot for Penn students looking to experience a different culture while studying in a place where English is the dominant language. For many, it’s also a jumping–off point for touring Europe—relatively cheap flights and an efficient train system mean that much of the continent is within reach for weekend and day trips. However, as Parliament battled to negotiate the terms of leaving the European Union, Jesse felt politics encroaching upon his experience abroad.
“It did come up in two of my classes. I took a class called ‘The Integration of the European Union,’ and at the beginning of the semester, that sort of looked like, ‘The Disintegration of the European Union,’” he says.
“[Brexit] also—it sort of colored a lot of conversations we had in my British politics class, just because everything that we looked at, there was a link to Brexit,” Jesse says.
Angela Malinovitch (C '20) arrived in Paris last month for a Penn Global Seminar about Paris under Nazi occupation and the Holocaust in France. Her experience with ongoing political upheaval in Paris was similar to what Jesse found in London.
Penn Global Seminars are courses that culminate in relatively short trips abroad, combining “intensive semester-long study with a short-term travel component that deepens [one’s] understanding of concepts discussed in the classroom.” Angela took the course to learn more about the history of Paris during World War II, but she received an education in much more than just what was on the syllabus.
Paris, another popular abroad destination for Penn students, has erupted into protests and strikes in recent months, as the ongoing yellow vests movement, which began in October 2018, continues. Public transit has been shut down for weeks as Parisians take to the streets to protest a hike in fuel taxes, a move they consider to be an embodiment of President Emmanuel Macron’s bias towards the wealthy. Every Saturday, protesters donned with yellow vests march and protest, with some more radical members vandalizing storefronts and starting fires, while police fire tear gas into the crowds. Many are calling for the president’s resignation.
Angela recalls her last Saturday abroad, when she was barred from walking back to her hotel room due to a march into central Paris.
“I had gone shopping that afternoon, I was trying to get back to the hotel, and the Bastille was all blocked off,” she says. “It was almost like a parade. There were floats and people were singing, and they were selling beer and it was just a very fun, solidarity environment, which was just really interesting to see as someone who lived in America her whole life, and that stuff just doesn’t really happen.”
Angela noted that the protests were unexpected but allowed her to think more critically about the issues people around the globe faced, adding a dimension to her abroad experience she wouldn’t have otherwise had.
“I think it honestly was just really eye–opening to see people believe in something so much and have so much energy to do this every single week because they believe it’s their right,” she says.
“We actually had a presentation one night from a professor who teaches at The New School in Paris, his name is Emmanuel Cohen. And he gave us kind of the whole lowdown, like the whole history of strikes in France, and when the big ones were, and why this one today is happening,” she says. “So in terms of the theory behind it, we learned a lot about that. And I think that helped us to understand and to empathize with the French people.”
Jesse reflects similarly on the Brexit conflict, noting its importance in widening his perspective.
“When you’re in America, you really only get one perspective on Brexit. I believed what I heard a lot of the times, and I didn’t do a lot of my own research into what the actual causes of Brexit were. And being there, especially being in the academic environment of King’s, you start to realize there was so much more at play than just one party saying we wanted to leave, or just like a dislike of the immigration crisis,” he says. “There was just so much more at play, and so I think as someone who is politically aware and tries to engage in politics, I thought it definitely colored [my trip] in a good way.”
Jesse notes that coming into his abroad experience, he had always been politically aware and had been paying attention to the Brexit conflict. But being in London and speaking with British students gave him a new outlook on global issues, an experience he believes students should seek out while studying in a foreign country.
“When Boris Johnson tried to prorogue Parliament and that was shut down, Brexit literally became the topic of conversation for everyone,” he says. “If the American students there were only hanging out with Americans, then it probably would not have come up.”
Aiden Reiter (C, W '20) got a firsthand look into Chinese politics and perspectives on American life during his semester at Peking University. That fall, the trade war between the United States and China escalated, and Aiden found himself in the middle of both the 2018 midterm elections and issues with China and President Donald Trump.
“All the classes I took were totally informed by the current events happening,” he says. “I think a lot of my experience was marked by the U.S.–China trade war.”
Aiden also noted rumblings of what is now the pro-democracy protest movement in Hong Kong. The protests, which began over a bill that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China, have grown to represent a broader fight for democracy for many Hongkongers.
Jesse also spent this past summer working in China, and he remembers that as the news was exploding with media coverage, the dynamic was quite different inside the country.
“The protests had been going on at this point for a month and a half or maybe even two months,” he says. “I said to one of my Chinese co–workers, like, ‘Wow, it’s so crazy what’s going on in Hong Kong.’ And she looked at me and said, ‘What’s going on in Hong Kong?’ So, in China, it took a month and a half, even longer, for the government to even say anything on state–sponsored media, only because, again, you can’t access outside media unless you have a VPN. So that was sort of crazy to me.”
Penn students who find themselves in the middle of political events are stuck between the traditional easygoing abroad narrative and the dynamics of the changing political world. Learning abroad extends beyond the classroom, and the lessons aren’t just academic. Although protests and social unrest might make it harder to be a tourist or hit the local bars, they provide a perspective that would otherwise be unavailable to someone traveling to a new place for only a short period of time.
Angela recalls the intersection between the political subject matter of her trip and the real world experience. The French transit protests initially just meant that she couldn’t get back to her hotel, or that every day was full of walking past closed off metro stops. But context explained not just what the protests were, but why they were so important.
“Otherwise you kind of get stuck in, like, ‘This sucks because it’s inconveniencing me,’” she says. “But at the end of the day, when we heard why they’re doing this, there’s a sense of empathy that we all have as humans. Like okay, I’ll walk a little bit farther today, so that someone else can march.”