I am currently locked away in my office at the Equality Commission, reflecting on my past seven days in Rome. When law school grades were posted in mid-February, I decided to celebrate by traveling alone to the Eternal City. The trip concerned my closest friends and actually frightened my family. From the time my mother first heard “Missing child, three years old, aisle three” over the intercom until today, she has been fearful of my self-proclaimed “internal compass”. Before repeating “I love you” three times, she prayed with me over the phone and asked God to guide me on what she described as an “arduous journey for a directionally challenged young man”. But, I was not offended. This was neither the first nor the last prayer request that I had frequently heard over the past fifteen years. After ending our conversation with a solemn “Amen”, I finished packing my carry-on bag, taxied to the Belfast International Airport, and embarked on a voyage that has undoubtedly left an indelible mark on my life. Without the generous support of the George J. Mitchell Scholarship Program, such an experience would not have been possible.
Being in Rome, I certainly did as the Romans. I stood amidst the remains of the Roman Forum and marveled at one of the greatest wonders of Roman civilization: the Colosseum. I attended mass at the finest of the churches of Rome, the Basilica di San Paolo Fuori Le Mura (St. Paul’s Outside the Walls) built over the tomb of St. Paul. I visited the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, the fourth largest church in Rome and the principle church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In one instance, I became lost and unknowingly entered the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli that boasts Michelangelo’s masterpiece, Moses, and the famous chains that imprisoned St. Peter during the reign of Herod. I tossed ten pence into the sumptuous Trevi Fountain to ensure my return to Rome. At dusk one afternoon, I sipped wine and ate cheeses in a hidden park that provided a breathtaking view of the Eternal City. During my visit to the Pantheon, it began to rain and I watched the water descend through the oculus and in the concave areas. I shopped along the posh via Condotti that ended at the front of the Spanish steps. I walked to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica and looked out over the awe-inspiring Vatican City. I practiced my limited Italian in pizzerias and bars, constantly pursuing opportunities to interact with the unique culture and people. Traveling alone with a map in hand proved to be the most valuable experience and one that I will cherish for the rest of my life. It was also a productive excursion as I edited my book and finalized my dissertation topic.
Over the next six months, I will be studying and interviewing homosexual asylum seekers in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Australia. As a “particular social group” under the 1951 International Convention Related to the Status of Refugees, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals have increasingly sought asylum in countries that are more tolerant towards people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. I will consider legislative developments in the four countries and analyze the regional jurisprudence related to LGBT refugees. After examining the extant case law, I will assess each State’s application of international norms related to refugees and its translation of these standards in cases of LGBT asylum seekers.
While I have undoubtedly enjoyed my research in the area of sexual orientation-related rights and my travel experience as a single chap, I have simultaneously missed my fellow scholars. I have been overwhelmed with responsibilities: impending coursework, discrimination claims at the Equality Commission, and negotiation talks with landlords for an apartment in the fall. Therefore, I haven’t been able to travel to Dublin and Galway as regularly as I did last semester. A few scholars, however, have visited Belfast to grab dinner and a pint. As Lara was meeting with my dissertation supervisor in regards to her impressive work in human trafficking, she stopped by my room for “a tea and a chat” and brought along delectable wafers and Belgian chocolate bars. She was aware that I had two 6,000-word essays due the next day and I thanked her for her thoughtfulness. But, the gesture was certainly not surprising. Such a random act of kindness is a common occurrence within our close-knit group. The Mitchell scholarship is definitely unique among other international scholarships and fellowships in that our Mitchell community is smaller than its Rhodes and Marshall counterparts. As a result, I have interacted with each scholar on an individual basis, providing me with invaluable opportunities to learn his or her strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. In my most recent journal, I spoke rather enthusiastically about my law school class. Perhaps this was due to looming examinations and papers. However, the Mitchell community is the group where I have drawn strength, encouragement and passion. If you are reading this journal as a recently selected scholar or a prospective applicant, understand that the Mitchell Scholarship program will offer you every possible resource to achieve your goals while on this Island. You will potentially reach the pinnacle of your pursuits within a supportive environment conducive to academic, professional and social development.
I can hardly believe that my Mitchell experience is nearly over. It is both exciting yet sad. If I hadn’t received this scholarship, I wouldn’t have developed my interests at such an early stage in my life. The Mitchell program has encouraged my decision to remain in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom to work for a human rights organization. I may apply for a Ph.D. in Law at numerous universities throughout the Ireland and the UK. But whatever I do, I know that this is the place where I want to build my career, my life and my family.
As a future scholar, please do not arrive to Ireland with your plans firmly established. Two months ago, I was determined to return to the States to write my Master’s dissertation and to start law school in the fall 2009. But, after being here for eight months, I realize that Northern Ireland is where I need and want to be for the next few years. That is not to say that I will never return to the States nor does it mean that I will not earn a J.D. from an American law school. But, it does mean that, with the support of the Mitchell Scholarship program, I have discovered a place I can confidently and comfortably call “home”.