Name: Natalie Hale
Type of Project: Education Abroad
1. My STEP Signature Project involved travelling to four countries and five cities across Europe with a history program known as “The U.S., Europe, And The Second World War-Interactions In 20th Century History.” My cohort and I explored various museums, memorials, and historical sites important to World War II.
2. This study abroad program was my first experience abroad. Not only was I immersed in the present local culture, but I was provided with the opportunity to connect the history I have spent the past semester learning about to the actual places in which the events took place. The United Space has an interesting perspective on World War II that shapes the way students learn about and understand the actions—it was not a “war at home.” Maybe in the sense that sacrifices were made, with women working jobs left behind by the men at war and even piloting aircraft domestically, as well as rationing and victory bonds. But the fighting itself was not domestic, nor did it really have the potential to be. This was a unique position, to be surrounded by vast oceans and allies. Now, this is not to be ignorant of events like Pearl Harbor, which resulted in the loss of war materiel and life, or the internment camps for those of Japanese descent. These experiences still shape life and policy, domestic and foreign, in the present day. The ability to set foot in the countries where the war took place gave us all the sense of history happening here as opposed to over there. I found that I was able to connect the events I’d spent the past semester researching with a physical location. There is something quite powerful about standing in the place where immense military operations or unthinkable atrocities took place.
3. I found that it was both the experience as a whole, as well as the different places I visited that made my transformation feel more complete. France and Poland provided me with my most influential experiences.
Bayeux was our first stop in France. It is a small coastal town, quiet but home to beautiful architecture and close to the beaches of Normandy. While Utah was fairly well preserved, an empty stretch of coast meant to give visitors a sense of what the soldiers faced as they landed on the beach, Omaha was strikingly crowded. A large monument seemed fitting, but there was a flurry of activity around us. French schoolchildren played in the sand, tourist shops lined the roads, and towering vacation homes were perched on the hills that rose beyond the sands. We also visited Point du Hoc, an American memorial to the men who scaled cliffs and took out a German post that would have drastically impacted the success of the Americans during the invasion of Normandy. My cohort and I explored the various parts of the post that have been left to nature. This included climbing in and out of bunkers and turrets. I was taken aback by the various ways in which time marches on and people choose to remember while trying to balance moving forward and recovering from the pain of occupation.
My time in Krakow made me pause to think about the way in which smaller countries remember World War II. Poland was under the heel of its occupiers, which includes Germany and the former Soviet Union. The identity of the Polish people sprung up and grew through the gaps in other peoples’ cultures. There was no neat bookend to the destruction of the German occupation–it was followed by a Soviet presence that is still seen in the architecture of cities outside Krakow today. The Schindler museum is a monument to the new identity of Poland that only began to develop in the last 30 years, a reminder of the pain that led to the pride visitors see today. There is a reclamation of culture happening in Krakow.
4. As a student of sociology and history, this study abroad program provided me with an opportunity to explore not only different cultures in the present day, but the memories of a global war that shaped the way these people live. This understanding of an interconnected world cannot be taught in schools, it must be seen in the differences of collective memory and cultural customs. Relations between countries may still be cool based on events that feel so long ago, with individual prejudices not so far under the surface. It is a new lens to add to my interpretations moving forward in my research.