Nora Sweeney ’24 is a Peace and Conflict Honors Major student at Swarthmore College, who studied abroad in Northern Ireland during the fall semester of 2022. The Peace and Conflict Studies department has invited Nora to an interview to share her experience studying abroad and provide suggestions to future study abroad students.
Question: Before we get into all the details, can you briefly share your overall experience studying abroad?
Sure! My name is Nora, and I am a junior at Swarthmore College. I am an Honors Major in Peace and Conflict Studies and an Honors Minor in Sociology and Anthropology. I spent last fall in Northern Ireland, a country with historical legacies of conflict.
I knew I wanted to study abroad at some point. It was high on my radar when I got to college because when else will you get to spend three months somewhere without logistical stress? After two years at Swarthmore (one during the height of the pandemic), it felt like a good time to take a break and have a couple of months to figure out the world.
The idea to go abroad last fall came from a couple of factors. The spring before my study abroad program, I took a class with Professor Smithey called Transforming Intractable Conflict, which focused on intense ethnopolitical conflicts that are long-standing and hard to resolve. As a major in the Peace and Conflict Studies program, this was the first time I’d learned about applied conflict resolution initiatives and attempts. The case study focused on the North of Ireland, which is where Professor Smithey’s research is and also where my mom grew up. It felt serendipitous that these could align, so I started to seek programs in Northern Ireland.
I found a program about democracy and social change in the North, which felt perfect. I had this big plan to participate in this great program and have concentrated education about peace in a country grappling with the legacies of conflict. I was quite sad to find out that the organization that runs the program folded after COVID financial concerns, but by then, I was set on getting to Northern Ireland. I ended up doing a direct enrollment program at Queen’s University Belfast, which was a phenomenal experience despite not being a focused program on conflict.
Question: What did you do on the first-day post-arrival? What were some of the most exciting experiences during your journey in Northern Ireland?
I left the United States on September 10th and got to Belfast on the 11th. It was crazy timing because the Queen had died on September 8th. So I got there on September 11th, slept, and tried to adjust to the time difference. The next day I had my program orientation, where they condensed everything we needed to know about studying abroad into a couple hours. It was supposed to be a multi-day event, but they canceled everything else because the country was meant to be in mourning because of the Queen.
The next day, Tuesday, September 13th, was the new King’s coronation tour. My “big introduction” to Belfast was also the empire’s “big introduction” to a new monarch! I lived with Americans also studying abroad, so we walked from our accommodation to the city center, which was beautiful (and my first actual glimpse of the center of Belfast). Then we wandered, parked ourselves on the curb by a barricade, and watched King Charles and Queen Consort Camilla come down waving in their car. It was a bizarre (but very cool) way to get introduced to the country.
Something that struck me was how I had learned so much about Belfast in my previous studies, but I still went into it not knowing how it would feel. I have learned most about conflict and how the city is still segregated between Protestants and Catholics, like how there are solid walls between communities. I knew that rationally, but I didn’t know how I would feel actually being there. When I talk to people, they say Belfast has changed a lot in the last 20 years. And it’s just people doing their regular routines— I hadn’t expected to not really feel conflict as in my daily life. I felt much safer in Belfast than walking down the street in the United States, and I think that has to do a lot in part with gun regulation policies.
It might be a bit cliché, but learning and feeling a city was the most exciting part. Belfast is a pretty small city. It’s the capital of Northern Ireland, but it’s still relatively small in size and population. During my time there, I didn’t have a cohort. I was mainly just doing my own thing! I was one of 24,000 students at the University, and no one knew me unless I went up and introduced myself to them. There were some interesting cultural differences— for example, participation isn’t required, nor is attendance in most classes. Sometimes I was the only one in class, which was very different from what I’m used to at Swarthmore.
It was nice just to be able to figure out what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be in a place where no one knew me nor would remember me once I left. It was very different from how I’ve experienced Swarthmore, where you know everyone or recognize most people on campus. Having the study abroad experience made me appreciate the Swarthmore community even more.
Question: What does peace mean to you, and how has that study abroad experience reinforced or changed that perception?
I went into Northern Ireland knowing they have this legacy of conflict that they are still grappling with in tangible and much more subversive ways.
Essentially, in Northern Ireland right now, there are two central communities, Catholics and Protestants. Where the Catholics tend to identify with the Irish Republic, the Protestant identity is more associated with the British State. And so one of the major things I was learning was that it is much more nuanced; your religion will no longer necessarily predict your political ideology. It was genuinely fascinating to go into that place and experience those nuances with a new understanding of what efforts are being made about conflict because so much has been attempted in the last two decades.
The biggest lesson I learned is that it is not terribly different from the United States. Northern Ireland is much more homogeneous and racially similar, and it’s got two prominent religions, but they’re both Christian religions. When you untangle it, some threads will still be the same. I think there are some important lessons to be learned from how we apply [ourselves] to conflict and conflict resolution that I did not realize could even be used in a U.S. context, but as it turns out, some aspects of conflict resolution can appear even across oceans. The concept of “peace” is intentionally vague because it is inherently not one-size-fits-all, but there can be schemas for how we approach resolutions. I think what I’m getting at is that in the United States, we tend to think of major conflicts happening “over there,” even though this country still experiences immense conflict. Communities are not always as different as they may seem on the surface, and I think we could learn some things from the commitment to finding a resolution that so many actors in the North of Ireland share.
Question: Any advice for future Swatties that are planning to study abroad?
I really recommend going abroad. Apart from the immense fun, I needed to go somewhere because, rationally, we know that the world is bigger than Swarthmore. When I got to the University, people asked where I went to school, and I would reply, “Swarthmore.” They would usually respond they had never heard of it. It was nice to be reminded in a physical, tangible way that there is more out there than just Swarthmore. My most extensive advice is to go and try these new experiences before the four years fly past.