During my last semester spent at the Villa Le Balze in Florence, I was fairly sheltered from the crises that have plagued Europe, notably the ongoing refugee crisis that European political leaders have continued to face. In the United States, Donald Trump makes the issue of xenophobia relatable for the average American through his persistent promotion of his inspired diplomatic panacea: the “Wall.”
While I was in Florence, my observations of the crisis remained in the realm of the theoretical, the abstract, the ideological. I followed news of the refugee crisis from frantic news reports, email alerts warning of thousands arriving in Munich during Oktoberfest and the occasional murmured opinions of Italian locals. But I never knowingly came into direct contact with them. Although we traversed the very same landscape as fellow itinerants and fellow foreigners, I, armed with my American passport and the privilege I acknowledge it brings, perhaps blinded by my own wanderlust, only saw their shadows imprinted in foreign headlines and flapping in the wind on a giant white banner tied to Madrid’s City Hall that spelled out “Refugees Welcome,” in black, block-print letters.
My experience of the Islamic State’s attack on Paris in November — another crisis that rocked Europe last fall — was, thankfully, just as distant. Along with the rest of the students at the villa, I was safe on an art history field trip in Venice. Having ignored the initial CNN notifications on my phone, I was first made aware that the attacks had occurred by a text from my mom in New York. I did not comprehend the true weight of the news until I learned that one of my best friends, who was spending the semester in the quiet town of Salamanca, Spain, was in Paris at the time. In fact, she was on the Eiffel Tower at the exact moment of the shootings. I can only assume that she was led high up in the air by the same force of paradoxical good luck that led her father down from the top floors of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001.
These somber memories of my semester abroad were brought back to me on the train home over Presidents’ Day Weekend with Henry Porter’s article “The War for Europe” in Vanity Fair, which discusses the “How do we handle this?” question. Porter suggested that the end is nigh for the modern political Europe as we know it, and that it would descend back into the medieval abyss from whence it came.
“It is very hard to be positive about much in the E.U.’s reaction to the events of 2015. Its institutions are basically unfit to respond,” Porter wrote. “If reform does not come quickly, that wonderful, grudging affinity [that is the Schengen Area] will be at an end, and Europe will return to its old ways.”
Its conclusion gave me pause. Although I would certainly place myself on the pessimistic end of the spectrum when it comes to projections on the spread of radical Islamist terrorism, I am critical of Porter for waxing a bit too much “doomsday.” Hiding behind the drama of this fatalistic language, however, is the very real importance of concern for the future of the identity of the European Union.
What does the refugee crisis mean for the future of Georgetown study abroad in Europe? In a purely practical sense, stricter visa policies would make the application process much more difficult. Tightened border controls would restrict or completely impede students’ ability to freely and easily travel throughout the continent, which has always been one of the most attractive aspects of spending a semester abroad. But above all, as international relations become increasingly volatile and personal safety that much harder to guarantee, will Americans continue to study in or travel to Europe at all?
After speaking with past and prospective study abroad students, it appears that outlooks on this topic vary. Many Hoyas share the belief that allowing fear of the crisis to impact the decisions they make about their own intellectual and spiritual goals would be an unacceptable way of “letting the terrorists win.” However, they cannot help but concede that traveling to Europe at this time constitutes a conscious decision to put oneself at risk by giving up the basic but incredibly effective protection of the Atlantic Ocean, among other things. This decision is one that many college students — or their families — are not willing to make; several students chose or were forced to come home early in the aftermath of Paris, while others cancelled their plans for 2016. These cases constitute the minority, but do reflect this new sense of fear
I will confess that I spent a large part of the holiday weekend wallowing in nostalgia from last fall. I see now, however, that my memories of study abroad should be a source only for the purest joy and gratitude. The opportunity for American college students to discover the beauty of European culture stands threatened. I am lucky that I was able experience it when I did.
Elizabeth Harvey is a junior in the College. ABROAD WITHDRAWAL appears every other Friday.
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