As we travelled to Belfast as three new WIP classmates, making idle small talk, I don’t think any of us knew what to expect for our orientation but we were certainly aware of how little we knew about the place where we were going. As the standard small talk of college subjects, hobbies and career plans withered away, less superficial conversation led us to realise that this would actually be our first time crossing the border into Belfast. This was something that I found unnerving to say the least. To think that WIP would be my third time in America yet I had never made the three hour journey to a place which could tell a thousand stories ─ a place previously of conflict, now a place of progress. As the road signs turned from white to green, I began to realise that my experience of conflict in Northern Ireland to date had been incredibly sheltered, especially in comparison to that of some of the class whom I was about to meet.
Over the course of the weekend, I would learn more about the story of Northern Ireland than a million books or academic journals could ever teach me. One of the main themes of this year’s program concerns “dealing with difference” and it is a process which, for me, is both exciting and challenging. I had many interesting conversations with my new classmates during orientation but in particular, the conversations surrounding conflict in Northern Ireland were both inspiring and alarming. I was humbled to meet with people who had been directly affected by the troubles. On the other hand, my experiences of the troubles had only skimmed the surface.
My most relatable experience to the troubles was the Omagh Bombing ─ an event which nobody either side of the border will ever forget. I remember on that day, my parents had travelled away for a holiday and I was reluctantly staying with a relative, not that I had any choice in the matter at the age of seven. I remember complaining, as seven year olds do, about missing my parents as it was the first time they had properly gone away in as long as I could remember. My complaints were aired over the backdrop of the 6 O’ clock news that day and even as those tragic images were broadcast, a seven year old child had his own worries. 14 years later, I sat in Belfast realising just how trivial my concerns were in comparison to some of the people who I was to meet over the course of my orientation. Dealing with that difference was a humbling experience but I realised that many other people south of the border remain unaffected by events like this. But just because we are unaffected by the past, does not mean we cannot affect the future. Just because Northern Ireland doesn’t appear in ever news headline anymore, it doesn’t mean that the work to build a better future has stopped, or that it need not continue. In fact, the range of speakers who were kind enough to give us there time over that weekend to share their experiences of the troubles seemed to echo these sentiments, as did some of the class members from Northern Ireland.
As group of thirty young people, we have travelled different paths to arrive at this destination. We come from varying backgrounds, tell different stories and most definitely have different opinions. Despite this, I think that it’s fair to say that insofar as progress in Northern Ireland goes, our goals are shared. A friend of mine told me that the majority of people only read the last few lines when reading blogs. If you happen to be one of those people, my WIP experience thus far is best described as one where dealing with difference is not an isolated instance but an ongoing process, and an enlightening one at that. A summer in Washington with people of different cultures and opinions will develop new insights and perspectives in everyone. And it is aspects like this that make this program so unique ─ everyone’s opinion is important, but it’s far more important that we all have opinions. As far as leadership is concerned, it was John Hume who said that he never thought of being a leader as much as he thought of helping people. The summer ahead presents an opportunity to live this ethos rather than just quote it and with comes the chance to make a real difference.