Northern Ireland course teaches about conflict and healing
Social work students get firsthand exposure to cultural division.
Each spring, the UGA School of Social Work offers a study abroad course in Social Issues in Northern Ireland.
This May, 10 UGA students—both undergraduate and graduate students—learned firsthand about the effects of years of political and religious conflict.
The group visited Belfast, Londonderry (also called Derry), the Corrymeela Community—a peace and reconciliation center near Ballycastle—and the coast. They toured sites of historic struggle and met with community activists, former paramilitary, elected officials and others who were involved in the Troubles, a period in the late 1960s when tensions between the Protestant majority and Catholic minority erupted in violence that continued for decades and officially ended in 1998.
The divided nature of the region was apparent wherever the group went. In many towns, the city hall flew two flags: the Union Jack and the Irish tricolor. Curbs were painted in partisan colors to denote local sympathies; murals memorialized events such as “Bloody Sunday,” the 1972 confrontation in which British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians. “Peace walls”—graffiti-covered barriers several stories high—separated neighborhoods. The strife not only reduced business investment in the region, the students discovered, it had another cost: separate schools for Protestants and Catholics weighed heavily on taxpayers.
“One thing that students learned was how complex social problems can be and—even more—how complex it is to find solutions to these problems,” said David Okech, an associate professor at UGA’s School of Social Work who directs the school’s global programs and also participated in this year’s trip.” Betsy Vonk, a professor in the School of Social Work, also oversees the course.
Many of the students noticed similarities between the historical conflict and current problems in the U.S.
“There are several parallels between the troubles and issues surrounding race relations here in the U.S.,” said Molly Tucker, a social work graduate student who said she took the course to gain more international experience and see how other cultures handle crisis situations.
At Corrymeela, students also learned about ways to help heal fractured communities. This year’s program at the center introduced a new feature: a daylong workshop on dealing with trauma, grief and loss sponsored by the WAVE Trauma Center, a nonprofit organization with offices in several Northern Ireland cities.
“The students loved it,” Vonk said. “It was one of the highlights of the program for them.”
Students also met with victims of violence such as Richard Moore. Moore was blinded at the age of 10 by a rubber bullet fired by a soldier near his schoolyard. Instead of being embittered by the experience, Moore went on to earn a university degree and founded the international nonprofit agency Children in Crossfire.
“This trip helped me to learn how to work with people who have experienced trauma and grief in their lives. It also taught me the importance of not judging a culture before experiencing it.”
— Hannah Lawrence
“It was so impactful to see how somebody can be so adversely affected by the conflict and still do such amazing work,” said Erin Hunnewell, an undergraduate business major from Roswell, Georgia.
People like Moore and the staff and volunteers at Corrymeela also showed how the region has begun to heal.
“Most people in Northern Ireland are very hopeful now about the progress that their communities have made in creating a peaceful society,” said Vonk.
Some students go back to Northern Ireland after completing the course. Sarah Stack, who earned a master’s degree in nonprofit organizations at the School of Social Work, now works for a nonprofit in Belfast. Melinda Moore, who earned her doctorate in social work, conducted research for her dissertation as a visiting research associate at Queen’s University in Belfast.
As part of the course, students kept journals in which they recorded daily events and the insights they gained.
“This trip helped me to learn how to work with people who have experienced trauma and grief in their lives,” said Hannah Lawrence, an undergraduate from Carrollton majoring in international affairs. “It also taught me the importance of not judging a culture before experiencing it.”
Other students said the firsthand encounters would affect their lives long after they completed the course.
“An international experience like this makes you feel more confident and capable, on both a personal and professional level,” said Courtney Prather, a social work graduate student from Marathon, Florida. “It truly was a life-changing experience.”
—Laurie Anderson, School of Social Work