Archived Page

Please note: The HECUA ‘Democracy and Social Change in Northern Ireland’ Programme has now relocated from the UNESCO Centre at the Coleraine campus to INCORE at the Magee campus. These pages are now archived (September 2013).

Student Profile

Gwynneth Thompson

University: Gustavus Adolphus College
Cohort: Spring 2011

Tell me a bit about your back‑story: Where did you grow up? How would you define your formative years?

I grew up in St. Paul Minnesota; I have two amazing siblings, Grace and Hunter. I also have a father named Paul and mother named Kathy.

Tell me a bit about an issue you care passionately about.

Over the past few years I have become aware of and passionate about human trafficking. I have become so excited to see a growing number of organizations and groups that are addressing the issue. Like everything that is ‘difficult’ to deal with, that is considered the ‘dark‑side of society’ it can be quite easy to ignore. Until recently this has been the case with human trafficking but amazingly now it has really been addressed in the public sphere. I feel the reason that I care so much about ending modern‑day slavery is because I feel that this infringes on one of the most basic universal human rights. Everyone has the right to freedom and even more so, no human should be even viewed as property, people are people not things!

Why did you choose to do the course?

The first time I heard about the HECUA program was during a class the spring of my freshmen year. As the representative explained what HECUA stands for and does as a study abroad program I quickly realized that if I went abroad I was going to do it through HECUA. After further research on HECUA’s programs and values I found the Northern Ireland trip, focusing on Democracy and Social Change. There is something absolutely amazing about having the opportunity to travel the world and encounter first hand different cultures. But I did not just want to use my semester for myself; I wanted to be able to give something of myself back to others. It was the opportunity of working in a hands‑on experience as an intern, working to help make a peaceful future, that was the real motivation for me to apply for this programme.

Was the course what you expected?

This course went above and beyond my expectations of what I thought it would be like. I knew that it would be different from my friends’ programmes for their study abroad because I was going to be working most of the time and not have the same chance to travel. However, I knew this going in and this is what I wanted. I wanted a chance to do something more, and I would not change this experience for anything in the world!

Where did you intern while participating in the programme? What did you like most about your internship and in what area did you grow the most?

I worked at East Belfast Mission, in inner East Belfast working in the Community and Family Development department. What I enjoyed most about my internship was working with the amazing organization – I was given the freedom to explore what made EBM so successful in their area as well as learn first‑hand what it meant to be working alongside a community. I believe that where I grew the most is difficult to measure but I know that I have changed. I learned that to work in reconciliation you must work with people; you must care about the community and the people. I have grown to care about the people in Inner East, they are the ones that changed me and I have left a piece of my heart with them forever.

What were/are your impressions of your HECUA program director?

Oh Nigel. I have been so very blessed to have him as my programme director. Nigel has given so much of himself, dedicated his entire semester to us. Without hesitation he has shown us his passions and has encouraged us to evaluate and assess our own passions. I know that it is through his willingness and leadership that I have experienced Northern Ireland the way that I have. He constantly reminded us to think about what we were doing, to evaluate why we feel the way we do, to think about what we let in and what we let go of. If it was anyone else, my time here would have been extremely different and I am so grateful for everything Nigel has given me.

What were the most challenging aspects of this programme?

The most challenging aspects of this programme were not in relation to the structure or the academic demands. Instead what I found to be the most challenging aspects were personally how I handled the issues of Northern Ireland. I know that it took me a while to evaluate what I would ‘let in’ from Northern Ireland and to find where my place was in the larger story here. I had to learn that my voice, my emotions, my interpretation of what is going on around me was just as important to my time here/my school work as what I read and heard from others. It took me some time but I think eventually I learned how to ‘Let Northern Ireland In’ and to love the place more for making me see my home and myself differently than before.

What advice would you give to others considering this programme?

It is a short time – it doesn’t seem like it when you show up in February but its only 3½ months. Really try to use every single moment that you have here. Each day is an experience and each choice you make will change how you see and experience this place. Go get lost in the city you intern in – wonder around and look at the city. These places are not textbook pictures or a guided tour, they are people’s homes and schools and neighborhoods. Allow the city and the people to be part of you because this entire place is about the people, the relationships that were formed or destroyed. You can’t ever understand it completely but you can experience it with others.

How did this programme make an impact on your life and how you think about your future?

I know that this programme has made an impact on how I understand my life and how I think about my future. This internship was kind of a test run to see if this is something I could really dedicate my entire life to. I knew that I wanted to work in reconciliation, that I wanted to work with people in rebuilding lives, however I never really knew how I was going to do it. I have always said that I have “job description just not a job title yet”. This programme has given me such encouragement in that what I want to do does have a job title, that there are people throughout the world that have dedicated their lives to serving others in such an intimate way coming alongside them in their struggles. Through this programme my eyes have been open to the reality of working in my dream field, that these careers are not just ideals for one with a “college‑student optimism” or “youthful ignorance”. Instead I have been given such hope from this programme. Hope in a peaceful future because there are people who dedicate their lives to this type of work. Hope for myself, if I work hard enough and love deep enough I too can be like the amazing people I have had a chance to meet while in Northern Ireland. And finally hope for my community back home, the things that I have learned and the ways I have changed I know will impact how I interact with people and how I work towards peace at home.

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Gwynneth Thompson and friends Gwynneth Thompson on rocks