Foróige member Robin Duke is among the young people who have traveled to the USA to take part in The Benjamin Franklin Transatlantic Fellows Summer Institute Programme at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The purpose of the intensive short term exchange program is to foster relationships among young Europeans and Americans, and to build strong linkages and an awareness of shared values. The four week program will enable teenagers, ages 16-18, to explore U.S. foreign policy priorities such as youth engagement, support for democracy and civil society, and economic prosperity. The program will consist of a series of lectures, seminar discussions and presentations, and a broad assortment of practical, faculty and mentor led workshops.
Robin, who is a member of The Attic Youth Café in Longford is writing a weekly blog about her experience on the programme.
We arrived in Philadelphia on Saturday evening, and got to see the city lights as we drove to the hotel.
The following day we went to the Benjamin Franklin Printing Press, followed by the Benjamin Franklin Museum just across from it. We received a talk on Franklin’s life and a demonstration on how to use the printing press. One interesting thing I found out was that the terms ‘lower case’ and ‘upper case’ letters got their name from the cases that Benjamin organized his iron letters in for the printing press. He stored the capital letters in the upper case and the minuscule letters in the lower case. He did this because there was no electricity, and with no light it was hard to see the letters, especially the small font sizes. He also had grooves in the letters to tell his trained fingers the correct way to hold it. This way he didn’t have to look at the letters to use them. I also found out that they used wet sheets of cotton as paper. When the ink was pushed into the cotton, it dyed the material and it was then left to dry up on a beam on the ceiling. We got to try this ourselves using the museum paddle to place the material on a beam on the ceiling. We also saw the frame where Franklin once lived, and quotes and facts about him. After lunch, we went to Indepence Hall and to where the Constitution was written. We saw a court that was used at the time, and contained a cage in which the defendant stands for the duration of the trial. They then put the argument forward that all people are innocent until proven guilty, so therefore you cannot punish them. After Independence Hall, we had the evening off and so my Philadelphian friend showed me and my other friends around the city. We did some shopping and then went back to the hotel.
Monday July 3rd, we went to the National Constitutional Centre. It was very emotional and empowering. After that we visited the museum in that building. There was information on Martin Luther King Jr., all Presidents, and other significant figures in American history. After that, we travelled to Washington D.C. As we drove through the city we spotted the Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol and the Vice President’s Office. We stayed in Thurston Hall on George Washington University campus. That night we all had pasta in Vapianos and went to bed.
Tuesday the 4th of July!!! The birth of the nation. Probably the most anticipated day of the programme. We started off by going to the U.S. Capitol and received a guided tour of the beautiful artwork. I learned that the building was built by three main groups of people; black slaves, people in debt and immigrants from Ireland. This came as a huge shock to me. After that we went to the Newseum (a museum about news) we saw old newspapers that were published during important events. I saw one wall covered in newspaper articles about 9/11 from all over the world - including Ireland! There were also things like VR experience, news reporter experience, dog news, etc. It was a really different and interesting museum. That night we all cleaned up for 4th of July celebrations!! We went down to the National Mall and danced, as we waited for the amazing display of fireworks. It was completely breath taking. They played Irish music and I felt just at home.
The next morning we had two talks in the Mayor’s office. One was on a charity that works with refugees, while the other taught us that even though the manufacturers of piping in D.C. say that there is no lead in the pipes, there can still be a certain amount of lead in them. This shocked everyone. That evening a few of us went on a trip around the National Mall. We saw the Washington Monument up close, the World War II memorial, the Vietnam Memorial and the Abraham Lincoln Memorial. Although, at this point I had still not seen the White House, these landmarks amazed me. The Lincoln memorial was colossal and when you put your legs on The Washington Monument it felt like it was falling back on you. Both war memorials were very sad and inspiring at the same time.
Thursday, 6th of July we got up at 5:30am to prepare for our 8:00am talks in the Department of State. First we heard from Megan Huber, EUR Regional Alumni Coordinator, Office of Alumni Affairs, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State - this was International Exchange Alumni Resources in which she told us what to do after this programme etc. After that, at 8:30am we received welcome remarks from Benjamin Ziff, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Bureau of European Affairs, U.S. Department of State. He let us ask him any question about European affairs, and I believe the question that lingered in most people’s head was ‘Are programmes dedicated to sustainability, like BFTF, going to be affected by the new presidency?’ His reply was that they try to value the important over the urgent, which didn’t really answer the question. He said that in case of a crisis they don’t just pull the plug on the important things in order to fix the urgent one. He said they try to keep what they believe important, like BFTF. I guess it was optimistic, but I would have preferred a direct yes or no - if Donald Trump will affect programmes on sustainability? At 9:00am Mark Taplin, Acting Assistant Secretary of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State gave us another opportunity to ask questions. I didn’t have many unanswered after Benjamin, except the Trump one, in which I felt maybe they just couldn’t answer. At 9:15am we had the Simulation Lab with Lauren Fischer and Gabby Spiro U.S. Diplomacy Center, Bureau of Public Affairs U.S. Department of State. We were asked to consider the situation of the refugee crisis, and in the scenario I was the country who was taking in refugees, but whose economy was crashing. The stimulation was very interesting and fun, considering I supported the position I was in. We never got to come to negotiations, but instead agreed to meet again. At 11:15am we had time with EUR PD Desk Officers to talk about the EU. I spoke about the effect that Brexit may have on us and how scary that is for me considering I’m only an hour from the border. We then received a tour of the Department of State. There were some amazing offices. They had quotes on the wall, a pin board for pins from other countries, it was colourful - it was the ideal office. I loved every second of the tour. We then left to go have lunch with past alumni members. After that we split up and went to different museums, depending on which we liked best. I went to the Hirsshorn Modern Art Museum where I saw artwork from people such as Ai Weiwei, Markus Lüpertz and Nicolas Party. However, my favourite was by Yoko Ono (John Lennon’s wife). It was a wall titled ‘MY MOMMY IS BEAUTIFUL’. It was accompanied by a table, some pens, some tape and some pieces of paper. The wall was covered in messages people had written about their mother. It was truly beautiful. That evening I had realized I had come to Washington and not seen the White House. So I asked people where it was and I had found out it was only around the corner from where I was staying. The last evening in D.C I went the White House, which a little was underwhelming I’ll be honest, but it was a perfect way to end the trip.