History of World War II Study Program

Patrick O’Connor

Education Abroad

My study abroad consisted of a voyage across four countries in Europe. In major cities like London, Paris, and Berlin as well as smaller cities like Krakow or Bayeux, the program explored the varying perceptions and aftermaths of World War II in each of these locations. Afterwards, I got the chance to visit Amsterdam, Rome, and Venice before returning to the States.

I believe it is important to compare different perspectives in everything, especially for a divisive topic like WWII. Being able to discern “the People’s War” in Britain and the victory of Free France against the destruction wrought by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and Germany’s work to atone for their past was interesting both academically and personally. It was also important to note the differences between these narratives and our own perception of the war, which was not fought on our own soil. Personally, I don’t think I realized before this trip how important travel is for me. Growing up, I had the opportunity to travel widely, always exploring the histories and traditions of the places I visited. After this trip, I had the chance to travel solo, which greatly increased my confidence and was a healthy challenge. Traveling brings me out of my day-to-day worries and into something much greater than myself. I also became much more conscious of American cultural influence throughout Europe. It was generally easy to find English speakers where we went, apart from France, and American pop music was played everywhere.

The first thing that comes to my mind in terms of transformation was our visit to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. It’s one thing to read about the more than one million people that perished at these camps, but it’s another experience altogether to witness the remains of the barracks and crematoria, and to see the spot where unknowing Jews would exit their trains and start the walk to their dooms. It was visceral, a memorial to the depths of suffering humans can cause for each other. The dehumanization that led to these deaths was not a sudden event, but a gradual process of rhetoric and violence that culminated in concentration camps.

Another visceral experience was visiting the D-Day beaches in Normandy. I was struck by the seaside villas along the coast at Omaha, a reminder that even though thousands of American soldiers shed blood on those sands, life goes on. It was surreal to go out to low tide at Utah and imagine the soldiers hopping off amphibious tanks to run up hundreds of meters while machine gun fire rained down upon them. Visiting the cemeteries in Normandy, I noticed most of the soldiers were around my age. The only thing that separated us was 75 years.

On a personal note, I bonded with the other 22 members of my cohort. Each of those people is intelligent, funny, and accomplished, and I am honored to have explored Europe with them. I also learned much from the professor and graduate student leading the trip. I look forward to keeping those connections alive and developing them into the future.

I have grown more confident, more culturally capable, and more conscientious of the world, with how huge it is and yet so small. In the future, I want to work for the government on international affairs issues. It is vital we remember the mistakes of the past to work towards a better tomorrow. This trip has given me the perspective I need personally and professionally to be able to achieve my goals.

You can find my blog posts made during the trip here.

At Auschwitz-II Birkenau, looking down the railroad tracks towards the main gate.

Looking out over Pointe du Hoc, where American Rangers scaled the cliffs during the D-Day invasion.

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