GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

Author: Jarrod Hayes (Page 1 of 2)

Study Abroad 2015: A new summer, a new crew

Welcome to a new year of Georgia Tech in the European Union.  We have a new crew of undergraduate and graduate students to share their experiences and insights.  This year we have the usual site visits and a new destination: Dublin!  There are old issues (European economy, Russian activity in Ukraine), new old ones (Mediterranean migration, Grexit), and truly new challenges (Brexit?!).  I look forward to hearing what our students have to say, and I am sure you do too!

Fun in the sun: study abroad visits Athens

As the recent blog posts attest, last week the program made its first ever visit to Athens, Greece.  Greece currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union and has suffered through some of the worst economic conditions in Europe for the past 6 years, so it was a great opportunity for the students to get a different perspective on Europe.


The group was greeted by 80 degrees (Fahrenheit) and sun when we arrived, certainly a dramatic break with the cooler and cloudier climate of Brussels.  The students had the first afternoon free, but many tagged along with Professors Birchfield, Hayes, and Knox-Hayes for a traditional Greek dinner on a charming side street not far from the hotel.  The next day, the students were in full intercultural learning mode as they took a tour of Athens’ legendary Acropolis and heard about the important role Athens played in the development of modern political systems. After the tour the students and faculty visited the new Acropolis museum to see some of the artifacts recovered and restored from ancient Greece.  Later in the week, the group also visited the Benaki museum, housed in the impressive former home of Emmanuel Benakis.  On display the students saw 8,000 years of Greek arts, from metal work to ceramics to traditional Greek clothing.  The group also toured the Ministry of Defence’s National War Museum, and were treated to an extraordinary tour hosted in part by the director of the museum itself!  The museum’s collections and displays covered a massive range of combat, and included a donated private collection with some very interesting weapons, including ornate dueling pistols.

As with the rest of the program, the students were in Athens to do serious work.  On Tuesday they engaged in a question and answer session at the Hellenic Parliament with the chairman of the Parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, followed by a tour of the Parliament:

They also took briefings from a range of scholars at the Hellenic Foundation on issues ranging from Greece’s economic crisis to foreign and security policy.  Toward the end of the week, the students had four hours of intense interaction with policymakers and advisers at the Foreign Ministry, where as usual our students asked very insightful and probing questions addressing some of the biggest challenges facing Greece and the EU.

As the recent appearance of podcasts on the blog shows, the students didn’t leave these issues in the briefing room.  They took it upon themselves to organize group discussions on the rooftop of our hotel (with a lovely view of the Acropolis)

on the issues and themes they have been wresting with in Athens and throughout the program.  Dr. Hayes had a chance to see one of these discussions in progress, and had this reaction on Twitter:

The week ended with a trip to the remains of Poseidon’s temple, where the students enjoyed a brief swim before a seaside dinner followed by sunset and moonrise at the temple.

The group ended their time in Greece with a free day on Saturday, and a number of the students took advantage of the time to see parts of the city they had not yet experienced, and more than a few sought out the storied turquoise waters of the Aegean Sea.

All around a work hard, play hard experience for everyone…just the kind of extraordinary education the students have come to expect!



Week 4: Maastricht, Energy, and Human Rights – Oh My!

As I write this, our students are (hopefully) preparing for our first group excursion away from Brussels.  Next week, we will be in Athens, Greece, where the students will have an opportunity to see first hand the effects of austerity and think about the ties that bind the EU together (and ostensibly discover the Greek root of all words 🙂 ).

While next week will be a blast, this week was no slouch.  It started with a voluntary trip to Maastricht, Netherlands.  Our first stop was a gelato shop just 3 minutes from the train station door:

Gelato in Maastricht. How can one go wrong?

Afterward the students got to see a Dominican church converted into a most impressive bookstore and a limestone mine dating back to Roman times at Mount Sint Pietersberg (St. Peter).

The students had some classroom time this week, pretty much the last of the formal lectures.  On Thursday, they had a visit to DG Energy, where they heard from a wonderfully animated Jeff Piper on the energy supply and security issues confronting Europe.  On Friday, they visited the Committee of the Regions,

where Eric Leurquin, an expert on the financial underpinnings of the EU and the Euro financial crisis, hosted the group.  After a photo opportunity with the flags of the member states

and a visit to the outdoor lounge and its brilliant view of the European Parliament,

the students made ready for some serious learning:

After Eric’s lecture, the group had a chance to check out the impressive technology during a role-playing exercise in which they tried to find a solution to the Greek economic crisis (video).  It was a fantastic session!

After lunch in the Committee of the Regions cafeteria, the group made its way to the Council of Europe (which is not part of the European Union!).  There they heard about one of the broadest and strongest human rights regimes in the world, and asked some challenging questions. 

Our host said more than once: “That’s a great question.”  The students did us proud!

Living the MEP life

Yesterday was another engaging day for our students.  Thursday was a public holiday in Brussels, so our usual classroom location was closed.  Undaunted, the group met in the shadow of the European Parliament, and from there Associate Professor Vicki Birchfield led the group to a nearby café, where the students enjoyed coffee, tea, and orange juice while being quizzed on the structures of the European Union and our site visits this week.

A nice setting for class: a cafe called London in the city of Brussels

After a lunch break, the group reconvened outside the Parliament’s museum, the Parlamentarium.  After the security check, we were ushered into a private section of the museum, where the students took part in a role playing game that put them in the position of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).  For reasons we would shortly discover, the simulation is incredibly popular and requires reservations be made 3-4 months in advance.  But, as we have seen over and over again throughout our three weeks here, the incredible amount of work Professor Birchfield puts in throughout the academic year to lay the groundwork for the study abroad paid off.  We had our spot!  Please note that in what follows, links point to uploaded videos of the students.

Students are clearly excited to get started

Verdaan gets his assignment

The simulation is very well put together.  The entire thing is run through smart phones, which send the students to specific locations within the game playing complex as well as provide important information.  The students were divided into 4 political groups, which roughly reflect the dominant groups in the Parliament.  After a short briefing, they dispersed to their group ‘headquarters’ to choose leaders (spokespersons) and hear from virtual political group leaders as to their political position on two fictitious-but-plausibly-real issues: water distribution and networking across Europe, and human ID microchip implanting.

After their party briefing, students were split up to hear from virtual constituents and lobbyists as well as debate each other on the issues.

After the Information gathering and political debating, the students were separated into two groups, where they negotiated on the amendments to the directives presented to them by the European Commission.  The contestation was spirited, and it was clear to the faculty that the students were taking the game very seriously.

After these sessions, the students came back together to hear from their spokespersons as to why they should vote yes or no on the amended directives.  It was a great chance for the students to practice policy making through persuasion.

Following the vote, the students were sent back to their committee rooms, where condescending virtual members of the European Council informed them that the Parliament’s position was not acceptable to the member states of the EU.  The students engaged in a complex virtual negotiation with the Council, only to be interrupted by an ‘emergency’; an earthquake in a fictitious European city had changed the political calculus surrounding the issues.  After watching a news report on the crisis, the students returned to their negotiations with the Council, to find that the member states had changed their position on the water and microchip issues.  The students were able to find a compromise (defined in one of our previous site visits as an outcome that makes everyone equally unhappy—a logic the students also invoked) amongst themselves and with the Council.  They then came together for a ‘second reading’ of the two pieces of legislation, both of which passed.

It is difficult to adequately reprensent here the rich experience of the game.  Nonetheless, I hope something of that richness comes through.  The students did an excellent job, and the game was a great way for them to get direct experience with the complexity of policy making within the EU, and some perspective on what a tremendous accomplishment it is for the EU to continue to operate and strive to make the lives of Europeans better.

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