For my STEP Signature Project, I traveled abroad to complete a World War II tour in Europe. This entailed going to museums, monuments, and historic locations related to the second World War in England, France, Poland, and Germany. Additionally, every student in the class had to research a specific World War II topic, unique to them, and present it at a related site in Europe.
Since I’ve been back in the States, I’ve been asked many times what I’ve learned, if I’ve changed, and if this trip will have an impact on the rest of my life. These questions are so difficult to answer because while a simple yes or no may suffice, the explanations behind them are complicated, interwoven, and messy. Yes, I’ve learned a lot. Of course, I’ve changed. 100%, this trip will forever have an impact on my life. But I think one of the things I’ve learned has changed who I am and will impact how I live the rest of my life – perspective. Before this study abroad I could look at things from another person’s perspective and I was good about taking myself out of situations and looking at it differently, but I’ve never had to do that on such a big scale before. I had to look at a whole war from multiple different countries’ perspectives and see how it affected each one.
Although we spent the spring semester studying the parts that England, France, Poland, and Germany played in the war, nothing brought it to life for me as much as being in the countries did. While the U.S. was a part of World War II, we did not experience any fighting in our country. I didn’t fully grasp this until I was standing on a site I had learned about my whole life and realized – the war happened right here. This realization never ceased to amaze me in each country: walking through the bunker that Churchill lived in during air raids in London; standing in a bomb crater at Pointe du Hoc in France; getting whipped with the wind on the beaches in Normandy that were stormed on D-Day; standing in the same place as those who were torn apart from their families at Auschwitz in Poland; and walking through the house that Churchill, Truman, and Stalin determined the reparations for Germany after the end of the war. At each of these sites, I was forced to look at this war through their eyes. These countries were bombed causing many families to lose their homes or even loved ones. Some of these countries were occupied and terrorized by Nazis. Most of these countries were on such strict rationing that citizens would have to wait in a line for hours to get a loaf of bread. I had to take myself out of the American perspective and really try to view this war and its effects through these countries eyes.
Not only did I learn how to view difficult matters from the perspective of a country unlike my own, I improved my ability to appreciate others’ different perspectives. I received the privilege of traveling with 23 brilliant students. With that privilege, I was honored to be able to engage in hard, thought-provoking discussions that gave me insight into their perspectives and allowed me to view topics in a different way. The most memorable museum I visited was the Caen Memorial Museum in France and I only remember it the most because of the incredible discussion I had with some of my classmates.
During World War II, part of France was occupied by Nazis and the other portion, Vichy, was unoccupied but they still collaborated with the Germans. This is a tricky spot in history in France as they want to emphasize their French resistance while maybe not put as much emphasis on the collaboration. In the Caen Memorial Museum, there was a portion on Vichy and it was worded ambiguously where it left me wondering if they were trying to excuse their collaboration or simply explain their reasoning. I asked a couple of my classmates which led to a 20-minute discussion in the middle of this exhibit. One of them brought up that it could be a translation error as everything was translated from French to English. This hadn’t crossed my mind because I naïvely assumed everything could be translated directly. This led me to ask one of our classmates that speaks French and it turned out that the Vichy collaboration was his specialized topic. Through this discussion, I learned much more than I would have going through the part of the museum we missed because of our lengthy conversation. The perspectives that these classmates brought to the discussion made me see this topic at many different angles and really engaged my critical thinking. Conversations like these happened all over Europe whether they were in a museum in France, at dinner in Poland, or a park in London.
Having a better perspective on the world and being able to appreciate others’ perspective will be valuable in every facet of my life. This will obviously have a significant impact in my personal life. I will be able to better relate to others because I spent 4 weeks understanding 23 different minds and perspectives. I have already found in my time back home that I can relate to others better because I’m able to look at their position from their perspective. I have also found that I don’t get as upset about things not going the way I planned because of this perspective I gained in Europe.
As for my professional goals, I plan on becoming a physical therapist and perspective is everything. I will be working in close contact with many different people who are going through a difficult time that I most likely haven’t experienced myself. After this practice in Europe, I will be able to empathize and understand my patients better. I wasn’t anticipating this change to be so prominent after my time in Europe but I have only been back a few weeks and already see ample benefits.