It has been under two weeks since our small group of students and professors said goodbye and parted ways after our ten day trip in Vienna. In our last meeting as a group each student spoke eloquently about what they took away from the trip, and I was struck by how unique each response was. However, in struggling to collect my thoughts, the most formative aspect of the trip for me was a deeper sense of empathy. After reading the introductory materials for the trip, and preparing to depart, I was focused on the way in which Austrian and Viennese history shapes contemporary policies. I was intrigued by how traditional societal standards emerged in the charged dialogue which surrounds issues such as migration.
By halfway through the trip, my attention had shifted and I wanted to continue the discussions we were having as a group about identity and discourse. Each day brought new topics to be discussed and new perspectives, all of which culminated into a greater, empathetic understanding of the current refugee crisis in Europe. Each person with whom we met, be they museum curators, policy makers, scholars, or non-profit workers, provided a unique perspective on the position of refugees in Austria. Every one of them acknowledged that there was a problem that needed solving but, as the trip went on, and my peers peppered them with thoughtful and concise questions, fewer and fewer could provide a solution. In no way is that meant to imply that they were not trying.
Most of the individuals who we had the pleasure to meet had dedicated their work to improving the lives of people around them. However, it became increasingly clear that there was no one “right” solution and that there was a good chance that, for any effort made in one direction, there was at least one made in the opposite direction. Davidson is known for having classroom environments which help to foster critical and diverse thinking. It is one of the many reasons that I have come to love my time thus far at college, and having the opportunity to analyze and discuss complex issues has made me a better student. Because of this environment, my immediate reaction when faced with a new subject is to approach it critically, to attempt to interrogate all perspectives and to understand its foundation.
However, what I learned during this trip is that it is far too easy to be critical, especially when it comes to policy and politics, when you are removed from the process. Each one of our meetings with members of different organizations and institutions involved my peers and I getting to ask the individuals who were “on the ground,” so to speak, very direct questions. In turn, we received very honest and frank responses, which provided insight that we would not have otherwise gained from simply looking at statistics or reading articles.
One of the many reasons why this trip was so valuable was because of the diverse ways in which my peers contributed to the group. Having the opportunity to converse with Econ majors, German speakers, History majors, and fellow students of the Political Science Department gave me new avenues to think critically about the issues at hand. I walked away from each discussion with a new perspective, more confused and curious than I ever expected to be. And, while I may not have agreed with their position or their approach to the refugee crisis, I could understand why they held their beliefs. I acknowledge the fact that such a seemingly insignificant exercise of empathy should be an easy thing to achieve, but my personal realization was that it is exceptionally difficult to dismiss an idea or belief when faced directly with the person who holds it, as opposed to when you receive it as a third, uninvolved party. While it may seem like a small nuance, this sense of empathy is what I find myself thinking about the most in the days after the trip. Not often in the classroom do you have the opportunity to meet with the academics whose work you are analyzing, or to discuss policies with their creator.
One of the most striking instances in which I was able to see clearly the importance of this reality was when a government official very candidly took the opportunity to tell us that, when it comes to international relations, “no decision is better than a bad one.” In attempting to coordinate the efforts of dozens of nations, governments and international organizations, it is strikingly clear how significant this mantra can be. It is something that you have the chance to see when you are working in that field but not often as a student studying it. When attempting to create policies to deal with situations as delicate and immediate as the recent influx of refugees into Europe, each organization involved has its own agenda. However, in order to successfully create policies which benefit those in need, it is crucial that each person involved recognizes the legitimacy of the goals of the other stakeholders.
The ability to join academic curiosity and skepticism, which I saw so clearly demonstrated in the eagerness of my peers, with a greater sense of empathy and broadening of perspective, will make me a stronger student and person. This trip allowed me to envision my academic and personal interests aligning with a future career.