GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

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Research Institute for Quality of Life and Romanian Ministry of Defense

We began our Monday morning with a visit to the Research Institute for Quality of Life at the Romanian Academy, which is one of the largest research institutes in Romania. Established in 1990, the Institute for Quality of Life conducts research spanning many different areas, such as quality of life, standard of living, social policy, and social problems. Our specific presentations were focused largely on the socioeconomic situation and health status of the Roma population in and around Romania. I was really excited to learn more about the Roma, after hearing about just a small portion of the discrimination and struggles they face during a lecture at the beginning of our program. One of the key points that was brought up at the start of the briefing is the complicated question of who is a Roma. According to a 2011 census, it is estimated that there are 12 million Roma around the world, with 8 million spread across Europe and an estimated 1.2 to 2.5 million living in Romania. We quickly learned that the accuracy of these numbers is right to be questioned and that the idea of who is a Roma has varied across time, location, and political spheres and even varies in terms of language and race. 

The Romanian Academy

I really enjoyed learning about how Romanian policies concerning the Roma have changed and evolved over the past decades. Assimilation policies during socialism included forced settlement and proletarization, which mostly incorporated unskilled or semi-skilled workers. One point that I found really interesting was the fact that many socialist policies did actually manage to improve the socioeconomic well-being of the Roma; however, local authorities were not very eager to implement these policies. On top of this, socialist policies also unfortunately destroyed most traditional Roma craftswork. Post-socialism found the Roma in a place of economic restructuring, with mass unemployment and NGOs taking the largest role in addressing the Roma plight until the 2000s. In the 1990s, NGOs implemented several policies aimed at improving the situation of the Roma that are still utilized today, including providing school mediators, health mediators, and job fairs. On top of this history of oppression and discrimination, there are still many major unresolved problems that the Roma people continue to face. Discrimination of Roma takes various forms, including school segregation of Roma across Romania. There is also a lack of medical services and insurance, and Roma children often don’t benefit from mandatory vaccines. 

Learning about the Roma at the Research Institute for Quality of Life

It was heartbreaking to learn that there is an estimated 70 percent of the Roma population either in or at risk of poverty. There has also been an increase in settlements of Roma type ghettos, ethnic neighborhoods where Roma are forced to stay in one location either by police or because they quite literally have no where else to go. Issues in these ghettos include everything from overcrowding and extreme poverty to floods, industrial hazards, and landslides. One of the stories told that stuck with me the most is about a Roma family living in a small room in one of the ghettos, where on top of all there other struggles, has to cover their faces at night with anything they can find to avoid rats chewing at them as they try to sleep. It was difficult to hear about stories like these, but it really made me understand how incredibly important the work that the Institute for Quality of Life is doing to raise awareness about the struggles and discrimination that the Roma people experience everyday.  

Fellow students at the Research Institute for Quality of Life

         Later that day, we had the incredible opportunity of visiting the Ministry of National Defense and hearing an outstanding briefing from Major General Iulian Berdillo, the head of the Strategic Planning Directorate. He began by explaining to us some of the basics of the Romanian armed forces, which were established in 1859 but have significantly evolved since then. One point that was made that I found interesting is that despite the seemingly smaller size of the Romanian armed forces, they are still very strong in the region. Romania also has a strong commitment to NATO, participating in NATO operations in Africa, the Middle East, and beyond. Another really interesting point that Major General Berdillo made was the strong ties between Romania and the United States. The United States recognizes the important strategic role that Romania plays in the area with both the Balkans and the Black Sea region. Romania and the United States have a relatively recent but strong history as allies, with just a couple examples being the Alabama National Guard State Partnership Program, a US led battle group in Poland, and the Aegis Ashore facility in Deveselu. Major General Berdillo did an excellent job answering all of our many questions, and I really appreciated how much he emphasized the role us students have in the future of international relations and security. 

The whole group with Major General Berdillo!

Following Major General Berdillo’s briefing, we also had the wonderful opportunity of hearing about a broader view of Romania in the EU, NATO, and defense planning. During this, we heard a lot about the importance of Romania’s opportunity to hold the Presidency of the Council of the EU. When talking about the Presidency, it was stated that Romania tried to be both realistic and ambitious in their goals. Although Romania faced some struggles during their six month presidency, I was really impressed to hear that they were able to achieve many of their initial goals, one of which being making significant progress with PESCO. Having the presidency for the first time and being largely successful with it, was of incredible importance for Romania and their relationship within the European Union. 

Dr. Markley gifting Major General Berdillo with some Georgia Tech goodies!

         One aspect of our stay that really made the visit so much more special was having our professor Dr. Markley there with us. The excitement she had for sharing the country she grew up in and cares so much about made all the difference when it came to really taking full opportunity of this once in a lifetime visit. I know all of the students are incredibly grateful for the unique perspective her background in Romania and experience with the Romanian Military has given her in teaching our classes and how our visits in Romania wouldn’t have been possible without her. Thank you Dr. Markley!

First Days in Romania!

This past Friday morning, we flew from Brussels to Bucharest. Upon our arrival, we took the scenic route to our hotel during which Alina Opreanu, an Atlanta staff member for Georgia Tech Lorraine who was born in Romania, pointed out some of the major landmarks in Bucharest.  As the sixth largest metropole in the European Union and the capital of Romania, Bucharest has a lot to offer including Herăstrău Park, Piața Victoriei (Victory Plaza), and Piața Revoluției (Revolution Plaza).  One thing that I found really interesting during our tour was when Alina Opreanu explained the French influences in Bucharest which is sometimes referred to as “Little Paris”.  We saw the Arc de Triumph, similar to the one in Paris, and the Piața de Charles de Gaulle, named after the former French president.

Route of our bus tour

After touring the city and stopping by the hotel, we went out to dinner at a restaurant called Caru’ cu bere.  We got to try traditional Romanian food such as mititei (skinless sausages), sarmale (stuffed cabbages), and mămăligă (a type of polenta).  It was all delicious!  Like the food, the atmosphere of the restaurant was also amazing with live dance performances which I really enjoyed.  After dinner, we walked around downtown Bucharest and got to enjoy a light and fountain show.  It was a nice welcome and perfect ending to our first day in Romania.

Traditional Romanian food!

The next day, we visited the Palace of the Parliament.  Finished in 1997, it is the second largest administrative building besides the Pentagon in the United States and is larger than 60,000 square meters in size.  We took an hour tour, walked about one kilometer, and still only saw about 5% of the building; it truly is a massive building!  The inside was just as impressive as the size with beautiful chandeliers, marble staircases, and spacious conferences rooms.

Walking into the Palace of the Parliament

Tour in the Palace of the Parliament

After our tour of the Palace of the Parliament, we went to the “Dimitrie Gusti” National Village Museum where we got to see and walk inside some of the actual houses from villages around Romania.  It was interesting to see how the style of housing changed based on the time period and the location it was built in.  My favorite house was the Half-Buried House, as shown below, which was built in the early 19th century in southwest Romania.

Walking into the Village Museum

The Half-Buried House!

Later that day, we visited the National Museum of Contemporary Art which is located in the Palace of Parliament.  Started in 2001, this museum displays around 30,000 Romanian and international artworks in all different styles and time periods from the 1920s to the present.  One of my favorite exhibits was called “Seeing History-1947-2007” which includes artworks that celebrate the history of contemporary artwork in Romania.

Contemplating contemporary art with Dr. Markley 

Our next day in Romania was a free day.  A group of students decided to travel to the Transylvania region to go on two castle tours.  First of all, we went to Bran Castle which was built in 1377.  This castle is referred to as Dracula’s Castle because it was possibly the source of inspiration of the novel, Dracula.  It was fascinating to hear about this legend while enjoying the beautiful views from the castle. Next, we went to Peles Castle which was built in the late 19th century by King Carol I of Romania.  It was the first castle to have electricity in Europe, has a central heating system, and an opening stain glass roof.  The interior is magnificently decorated with impressive wood, mirror, and silk detailing in its 160 rooms.  Our daytrip to see the castles was a nice break from the busy city and a great chance to explore the beautiful countryside of Romania!

At Peles Castle!

Overall, during our first days in Romania, we’ve done a lot to explore the city of Bucharest and its surrounding areas.  With our program’s focus on the European Union, it is very appropriate to be visiting Romania at this time.  In earlier lectures, we learned that the Council of the European Union has a rotating presidency that lasts six months, and Romania just recently finished their term.  We’ve been able to see all of the remnants of their presidency still around Bucharest including signs on buildings and in the Palace of the Parliament.  One of my favorite things about this study abroad program is how we connect what we learn in a classroom to the real world, and our experience in Romania is another example of that wonderful opportunity.

The signs for the Romanian Presidency can be seen everywhere!

There are even signs in the Palace of the Parliament

The US Mission to the EU

For our last site visit in Brussels, we visited the US Mission to the European Union to get an American perspective on the transatlantic relationship that we have been studying throughout the program’s duration. While expecting to discuss issues like Iran, China, and trade, the briefer, who was an intellectual property and copyright lawyer in the embassy, discussed his work fighting copyright infringement. Even though we were not able to ask about general, large-scale diplomatic questions, his talk on the complexities of international copyright law was an interesting change of pace to the more technical, everyday work of personnel at the embassies.

The crew was waiting anxiously in the lobby!

Dr. Birchfield, ready to go!

He began his talk describing how the embassy is set up and the day-to-day challenges faced by those who work there. The larger embassy is broken into subsections that correspond to departments in the US. For example, the section he worked in was the US Commercial Service, which corresponds to the US Department of Commerce. He described the complexities of intellectual property (IP) law. IP touches other areas of law and is therefore not an isolated practice within the US Embassy. The briefer has to interact daily with other organizations and agencies within and outside the embassy when working. The US Embassy has to work especially close to Washington to make sure that there is a complete, cohesive position within the EU when it comes to IP law and policy. The IP office also has to work with American companies and all parties involved to get a comprehensive view for what is best for the US, its people, and its economy.

A case study examined at the briefing was the recent directive passed in March concerning copyright and IP rules for the Internet. He started off with the creative content on YouTube. Since there are many different aspects that go into a work, multiple parties have to contribute to the conversation in the US embassy to make sure the best policy for the US is pursued. As a group, we went over the interests the US had in that specific case compared to the EU. The US was mostly concerned about how the new law affects major US corporations and companies operating within the European Union while the EU was attempting to engage all sectors involved in the copyright process, giving a little bit to everyone while protecting the interests of the EU. The main takeaways that can be drawn from the briefing are that US interests are diverse, positions taken need to benefit the transatlantic economy, the day-to-day operations at the US embassy are complex, and various offices need to be flexible with different sectors of the economy to be successful.

Kyle Smith for President

After the official briefing, we were able to ask questions to the interns, Lizzy and Sam, who were working at the embassy. This was particularly interesting and insightful for me because I have a strong interest in working for the government, either for an internship or as a career. Some notable insights offered by the interns were that the day-to-day at an embassy is less lofty and theory focused and more in the weeds, the operations are more dynamic than initially was expected by them, and in working for the government, you are working for your country, not an administration.

Marc and Grace enjoying Lizzy’s company!

After our Q&A with the interns, we had a presentation by the Fulbright director for the Belgium, Luxembourg, and Schuman programs. This speaker was particularly dynamic and engaging as she regaled us with the story of her time as an intern with the state department and her surprise meeting with Hugo Chavez. The Fulbright program for students and professionals is an amazing opportunity to pursue what you are passionate about and get a global perspective while conducting research. After speaking to multiple people on the program, the general consensus from the group was that the presentation was eye-opening and the opportunity presented was an exciting one. Personally, I would be interested in pursuing the Fulbright Scholarship in the future, and I got the feeling that many others in the group would as well.

What a crazy Hugo Chavez story!

Fulbright Swag!

Our visit to the US Mission to the EU was a great way to finish off our leg of the trip in Brussels on a really positive note. The presentations not only covered concrete issues that are dealt with daily in the embassy, but also future career and research opportunities. Au revoir/Vaarwel to Brussels and Bună ziua Romania!

Normandy and Mont-Saint-Michel

On Friday and Saturday, after a very valuable but exhausting experience at Versailles, we travelled to Normandy and Mont-Saint-Michel.

I myself am a world war two history enthusiast. On a free weekend earlier in our stay in Brussels, I went to Bastogne on my own to see sites of the Battle of the Bulge. My grandfather took part in it, so it was incredible to stand on the very ground where he walked some 75 years ago. I not only visited the war museum, but also was able to walk in the Ardennes forest overlooking the town of Foy, passing by preserved fox holes that the men of the 101stairborne, the subjects of the book and miniseries Band of Brothers, would have shared in in -30-degree Celsius temperature. It was a very moving experience, and since our program did not have such a trip planned, I was incredibly grateful I could go on my own. Therefore, I was very excited to see Normandy on our weekend itinerary.

Although I was frustrated that we could only spend about an hour in Normandy, it was still incredible. We visited the American cemetery and museum at Omaha Beach. Of all the five beaches stormed on D-Day, soldiers on Omaha by far faced the fiercest resistance. Because bombing runs the previous night had largely missed their inland targets, German artillery overlooking Omaha was still relatively intact. That, combined with the fact that Americans would have to run across upwards of 300 yards of open beach, was a major factor contributing to the 3,000 casualties on Omaha alone.

I think Americans today generally see D-Day as a strictly American operation, with films like Saving Private Ryan, while an incredible depiction of the battle, overlook the contributions and suffering of others. The museum really highlighted how the invasion was truly an allied effort.

The British, dropping paratroopers the night before and landing at Sword and Gold Beaches, had over 62,000 troops participate in the invasion, suffering over 1,600 casualties. The Canadians suffered approximately 1,000 casualties from the 21,000 who landed at and captured Juno Beach. Even outside of the military operations, the civilian sacrifices were massive. In one Allied aerial bombardment of Caen, a city crucial to the Allied advance, almost 3,000 French civilians lost their lives. As the Allies moved further inland, the French resistance was also important, providing information on German movements and encampments

The museum as a whole was fantastic. It laid out in great detail the specific operations of the invasion, had timelines to show how the day unfolded, and told personal stories of individual sacrifice. It displayed many artifacts, including uniforms and an old transport jeep, but perhaps what was most powerful was the last item before exiting into the cemetery. In a glass case by itself, light shining from above, was a rifle dug into sand, a helmet rested on top. When bodies were buried on the battle fields during the war, these were used to mark their graves. From there, we could walk through the cemetery where over 9,000 Americans are buried. On a hill overlooking Omaha beach, it was an incredibly moving sight. The national anthem was played and there was a ceremony that appeared to be honoring several veterans who were visiting. It was hard to imagine that many of those men buried were just a few years older, if not the same age, as I am now.

Omaha Beach

Reflecting pool at the cemetery

After about fifteen minutes walking in the scorching heat, it was time to hop back on the bus for about two more hours, finally reaching Mont-Saint-Michel around 6:00 pm. We arrived at a perfect time: all the tourists were starting to leave. After getting off our coach bus and taking the shuttle to the gates of the island, we were led to our rooms, which were spread between four different hotels. My room was a bit more of a hike, but that meant it had an excellent view! After a delicious three course dinner, many of us took a walk on the muddy beach at dusk, enjoying some Frank Sinatra as the light at the top of the abbey shone through the growing darkness.

The next morning before we departed, many of us also led ourselves through a tour of the Abbey, able to see where the monks would have eaten, studied, and prayed, in addition to having even more breathtaking views of the surroundings. Back in Brussels, before we left for the weekend, my host family was incredibly jealous when I said we were spending the night on the island. I understand that reaction now, it truly was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

View from the beach at night

View from the abbey garden

Our nine-hour bus ride back to Brussels allowed for some reflection on the weekend as the whole. Normandy and Mont-Saint-Michel painted very different pictures of humanity, yet both brought me back to this same idea of peace

Looking over the seemingly endless rows of white crosses at Normandy is really intense. Of course, everyone in the United States knows about D-Day, but I don’t think anyone can really come to terms with a sacrifice and suffering on such a tremendous scale without visiting for themselves. At least I hadn’t experienced it the same way before. And this was just onebattle in a six-year war.

When visiting Verdun several weeks ago, overlooking an even larger cemetery, I asked myself, what was all this for?Learning more about the futile nature of the first world war and the failure of Versailles this summer invoked many similar questions. The tremendous effort that went into rebuilding a collective Europe after the second world war, however, meant that, when looking at thousands of American tombstones in Normandy and thousands of German ones in Bastogne, the answer to that question is clearer. Although it was a war to that needed to be fought, it is still hard to fathom that we are capable of such devastation. It is a sight that will make you much more appreciative of the relatively peaceful world we live in today.

Spending time at Mont-Saint-Michel right after Normandy was really interesting. The first sanctuary on the island was built in 708, it resisted siege during the Hundred Years War, and during the French Revolution was used as a prison until 1863. Its history, obviously, is very diverse. To the people of the Middle Ages, however, it was paradise. Although now parts of it are quite touristy, I shared that feeling of paradise. I can only dream of what life as a 10thcentury monk here would have been like, yet I imagine it as incredibly peaceful and fulfilling.

I was reminded of this in particular in a small garden on the top of the abbey. The destruction of the second World War, the pain and suffering of Normandy and Bastogne, was a fight to preserve a life of and world of peace. The inhabitants of the abbey and many soldiers during the war, at their cores I believe, had similar hopes for the world: one of harmony.

When aweing at the tranquil and bare French coast from this garden, I thought of the final line of Dwight Eisenhower’s letter to soldiers right before they left for the invasion of the very land I was standing on.

“Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.” A noble undertaking indeed.

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