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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

Natalie Pavlatos

University: Macalester 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 Superior, Wisconsin: a town of about 25,000 in northern Wisconsin. My father sold cars (he now sells motorcycles) and my mother works at a child care centre. Because my parents worked long hours I spent a lot of time after school with my grandparents. They watched the news channels, so that’s how I got interested in politics and current events. I attended a Catholic school from the age of 5 to 14, so I was pretty grounded in religious tradition as well. My family attended church each week – my mother, brother and I would go on Saturdays and my father on Sunday mornings because he worked on Saturday.

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

I am very passionate about participation in government and trying to get the highest number of people involved in the democratic process as possible. One of the things I dislike the most is apathy, so my interests lie around trying to figure out how to engage people – primarily youth – through different forms of communication and building relationships. This may be tangential, but I think part of the reason I was so impressed with the youth I saw at my internship was because I was watching young people take control of their own futures and break out of the cycle of apathy that had defined so many of them.

Why did you choose to do the course?

I was looking for a study abroad experience that involved an internship and one that dealt with conflict in some way. None of the programmes that I looked at really caught my attention until I heard about this one, and as cliché as it sounds, as soon as I read about it I knew this was where I wanted to go. I never thought in a million years I would end up studying in Northern Ireland, but once the idea was planted, it was the only place I wanted to go.

Was the course what you expected?

Absolutely. I was able to get a handle on the situation in Northern Ireland, gain valuable work experience, and study what I was interested in ’ that’s what I had expected out of the programme. What I wasn’t expecting was how much I really connected to Northern Ireland and how much I loved living and working in Belfast. I wasn’t expecting to build up a routine to the point where living here felt ‘normal’. I wasn’t expecting to connect so well to the other students on the programme that I feel like I have known them for years. Yet all of those things happened as well and I’m very happy about that.

What was the most memorable field speaker or class activity on your programme and why?

The most memorable activity for me was probably when we went out into Belfast and Derry and actually got to walk around the cities. It’s one thing to read about something in a book, but it’s something different entirely to hear someone directly affected by ‘The Troubles’ point to a street corner and tell you exactly what happened there, exactly who the people who died were, and exactly why they did the things they did. To me, although the lectures were fantastic and I learned something new every day of the program, there’s something about that experience of visiting for myself that can’t be expressed secondhand.

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 interned at The Prince’s Trust in Belfast. I think my favorite part was probably the people. My co‑workers were always very helpful in making sure I was settled in, knew where the best places to go in Belfast were and making sure my teacup was always filled. The youth that The Trust worked with were also incredibly inspiring to me and I really enjoyed getting to know some of them in my shadowing experiences. As far as how I grew, I think that I really gained a much better appreciation for the abilities of young people. I admit that when it comes to young offenders or youth with anti‑social behaviour problems, I harboured some prejudices about what they could and could not do. Meeting them, hearing how intelligent they were and how passionate they were to change their situation, really impacted me.

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

Nigel is great. I was told that before coming here by a past student (and our study abroad coordinator), but I still was amazed. He really is more than just a professor. Depending on the day, he was our professor, mentor, friend, driver, facilitator … really, the list goes on. It is evident he really gives his all to the program and I feel like it would not have been half the experience it was without him.

What were the most challenging aspects of this programme?

Having to realize that it was impossible to remain emotionally detached from what was going on in Northern Ireland. I had never really studied anything this in‑depth before and I expected to approach it as I would any other academic topic. Meeting people, visiting places, and hearing stories really impacted me more than I ever expected it to and I was not used to getting as emotional as I did. I normally am not a very outwardly emotional person, so it took time to accept that.

What advice would you give to others considering this programme?

Come in with an open mind and willing to learn and absorb as much as possible. Don’t think you know what’s going on before you come here – I could study this for years and still not know. Also, be prepared to feel down sometimes. It’s a very difficult place to wrap your head around and that’s okay. You’re with a group of students who are all experiencing similar things, so it helps (and is actually really fun!) to discuss class over dinner or tea.

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

First of all, it gave me a wonderful opportunity to see what it was like to work in the non‑profit sector, which is a field that I am interested in working in in the future. I think I will still need some time to process exactly how I have been changed by the programme in less superficial ways, but I think that’s a good thing. It’s a complex place and I have complex feelings about it, but overall it was a very positive experience for me. I have been challenged more this semester than I have ever been before. I have met some amazing people and I know that I have friends for life in the other students and some of my co‑workers from my internship.

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Natalie Pavlatos outside Stormont in Belfast