As I sit in front of my four foot tall Christmas tree, complete with white lights, light gray pearls and a silver star, I reflect on my experiences, both here in the Emerald Isle and abroad. It has been nearly three months since I called Mary Lou Hartman from Chicago to tell her how elated I was to leave the United States for the first time. I will never forget her parting words, “Remember, make the most of this opportunity. I know that you will.” Immediately after our conversation, I removed my new digital camera from its purse and began to take pictures in the O’Hare airport. Observers looked towards me as if I was a foreigner in my home country. But I wanted to document everything and uphold my pledge to Mary Lou. I also began to talk to fellow passengers who would be departing on the same seven-hour flight to London. I quickly learned that most were Americans revisiting London for business or leisure. I had initially planned to see the city of London in October, considering that, for now, Belfast was my final destination. However, during the flight, my recent tonsillectomy introduced severe pain and eventually vomiting. I hid my camera in my carry-on bag, as this was one experience that I didn’t care to record or remember.
With an upset stomach and sore throat, I was certainly not in the mood to be the gregarious Southerner. Usually, I introduce myself to others first. But, this time, a kind gentleman sitting next to me stole my role. He assisted me and happened to be a citizen of Belfast. Perhaps it was his strong accent or comforting words, but I immediately began to feel better. After my fifth and final trip to the airplane lavatory, I think Paul realized that I was not in a physical condition to discuss Magner’s cider or fish and chips. But he did continue to tell me a lot about the place that I now call “home.” He discussed the religious divide I couldn’t ignore, the pubs I should eventually visit, and the people who have ultimately become my extended family.
As expected, I remained in London with friends to recuperate from my unfortunate first flight over the Atlantic. Four days and a few painkillers later, I decided to do what I do best: spend money. With part of the generous travel stipend from the Mitchell Scholarship, I toured the Cabinet War Rooms, visited Buckingham Palace, and saw “Wicked.” After two weeks of traveling through Southampton, Salisbury and Manchester, I finally boarded an Aer Lingus flight to Belfast. Once I arrived at the Belfast International Airport, I continued to take pictures of my new surroundings. But these digitally enhanced photos were unlike the others in that these were of a place I now affectionately refer to as “home.”
Over the past three months, I have upheld my vow to Mary Lou to “make the most of the opportunity” and have experienced, first hand, Paul’s description of Belfast. Through my weekly visits to a local church, a black cab tour of the political murals, and conversations with Irish and Northern Irish graduate students, I now understand how extensively religion and politics have interacted with one another on the Island. However, I see the relationship most intensely in my modules: Human Rights Law I and Equality and Law. Within these classes, I am constantly introduced to regional law cases where human rights violations on the grounds of “religion” or “political opinion” are not beyond the scope of possibilities. I have also studied several of these cases through my recent internship placement at the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland.
It is interesting that sometime over the past week, I have noticed myself saying “we” in reference to the Equality Commission. Through researching various aspects of discrimination and engaging with barristers and solicitors who practice public interest law, I am quickly beginning to feel part of the Commission’s daily rhythm and to sense the passion with which I am surrounded. I am infused by the staff of the Commission with a commitment to empowering all those who do not fully understand the protections afforded them by international law. It is this same passion that has caused me to become actively involved in the local gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans gender (GLBT) political community. But my studies at Queen’s and my internship at the Equality Commission have helped to ground me and refocus my purpose in life to something beyond the immediate experience. They have transformed me into a passionate advocate for all who are victims of discrimination. But it is the Mitchell Scholarship Program that has provided me with the opportunity to connect with professionals who share my vision.
During my most recent trip to Dublin, I met with Irish Senator David Norris. Senator Norris was elected to the Irish Senate during a time of uncertainty and fear in the GLBT community. As the first openly gay person elected to public office in Ireland, Norris founded the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform. As early as 1983, he led a campaign for the decriminalization of homosexual acts. During lunch, he explained to me that, although the Supreme Court of Ireland ruled against him in a 3-2 decision, he had certainly made a difference and encouraged discourse on the rights of gays and lesbians. Most importantly, the Senator did not act for any immediate reward. Rather, he acted to assure all Irish citizens, both gay and straight, that they would be given the opportunity to express their differences in a safe atmosphere.
My day with Senator Norris and my studies at Queen’s University are coupled with other recent experiences that have undoubtedly shaped my perception of the world and further enhanced my tenure as a Mitchell Scholar. With increasing global interdependence, it is imperative that I have an international sensitivity and openness that can only come from having pursued opportunities, both academic and non-academic, to interact with other cultures and peoples. As a result, I have already spent one-third of my travel bursary to travel to mainland Europe for the first time. In two months, I have seen the Louvre in Paris, the Globe Theater in London, and an opera in Barcelona. I have also traveled throughout both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. As a member of a local skydiving club, I have seen a unique view of this magnificent island.
Looking around my room decorated with postcards from all over Ireland, my impending coursework, and three personalized post-it notes from fellow scholars, I understand that each of these experiences would be impossible without the financial, professional and emotional support from Mary Lou, Trina and all of the members of the U.S.-Ireland Alliance. These confirmations are evidence of an incredible three months on this Island: striking and nostalgic as they may be, whether viewed individually or taken as a whole, they embody the spirit and the purpose behind the George J. Mitchell scholarship program.