The Value of a Global Education
By Anna Audia, Lead Copyeditor
Mason Clark ’24, an international affairs and political science double major, began this semester with back-to-back trips to Rwanda and Colombia in an effort to understand how conflict-stricken nations reconstruct themselves.
Clark traveled first to Rwanda with the Immersion Project program through the Center for Public Service from Jan. 4 to the 14. His interest in Rwanda began in eighth grade when he studied the country and presented on it. Throughout high school and college, he chose to read a lot about Rwanda “out of personal interest,” took courses where it was often discussed, and he became quite familiar with the genocide and its resulting destruction. However, despite studying the genocide for some time, Clark stated that “there [are] moments, particularly visiting memorials, where you can experience things that you’re never actually going to experience in a classroom.” He said that there is an emotional experience that he encountered from visiting these sites “by just seeing or smelling the presence in a certain place.”
Because the genocide took place in countless locations throughout the country, not just in designated spaces, there are memorials everywhere. Clark described that the memorial and massacre sites have been preserved “so that people can go back today and see them in the state that they were in basically following everything that happened.”
The preservation of profound historical sites, such as the massacre sites in Rwanda, can be emotionally difficult to see because of how graphic they are. Clark brought up a question that is often a point of discussion when considering historical site preservation, and that is “what [is] the point of having such graphic memorials?”
For example, when one thinks about a memorial for a tragedy in the United States, they often point to the 9/11 Memorial because “it’s what you think of in your head as a memorial. [There’s] plaques, and there are names and flags, but it’s not particularly violent or gruesome,” Clark said.
But Clark said as it was explained to him by the guides in Rwanda, “The point of having these displays with these memorials set up in this way was essentially impart to actually preserve the memory and history of the genocide because what happens so often with genocide is denial, and that can come in different forms and levels.” In his experience at these memorials, Clark felt that by being “in the presence of the remains or ruins—the impact becomes a lot stronger.”
He described his time in Rwanda as a life-changing experience because “visiting those memorials [was] very powerful” despite having previous knowledge about the Rwandan genocide.
After visiting these sites, the group had discussions about what they saw, and for Clark, these discussions “seemed necessary to sort of unravel it because it’s so powerful and heavy.”
He emphasized the educational influence that Rwanda offered, saying “When you travel like that—especially in the countries that are so far away from the United States—a lot of what you learn is unexpected.”
One of the most important takeaways for Clark on the trip was being able to see the damage that occurred thirty years ago but also seeing how the country has immensely progressed since. Clark wanted to emphasize “the point of recovery and healing and transition” that exists there “because that’s really what makes Rwanda so amazing.”
After returning from Rwanda, Clark had one day at home before getting back on a plane to go to Colombia for a week—missing the first week of classes. He was offered the opportunity by chairperson and political science professor Caroline Hartzell and assistant professor of political science Douglas Page. The three of them presented research they had been working on at the Latin American Peace Science Society in Medellín, Colombia. The research question that they presented was “Do citizens express a preference for inclusive peace processes?” supported by other questions such as: “Who are the citizens that support inclusive peace processes? What types of inclusion do citizens support? What impact does support for inclusion have on respondents’ support for the peace?”
These questions reflect Clark’s academic work in the classroom, but they are also questions that applied to his trips to Rwanda and to Colombia. Aside from the conference, Clark also had the opportunity to explore the city of Medellin where he could see how that city was developed and compare it to the development of Kigali, Rwanda.
Clark said that having these back-to-back trips was an incredible intellectual experience as a student interested in studying the development of conflict-stricken countries. He said that “going from a low-income country like Rwanda to a middle-income country like Colombia, it was really interesting to see that growth.” Clark explained that in Colombia there were forms of architecture such as apartment high rises and skyscrapers that “just didn’t exist in Kigali.” By traveling to both of these countries within two weeks, Clark was also able to compare the way the conflicts in each country are memorialized based on the space of their conflicts. Clark said that because the conflict in Columbia wasn’t as localized as the one in Rwanda, there were less noticeable signs of it.
He said, “I feel so grateful that I was able to work with those professors and that I was able to be a part of a project like that and I hope that other professors at Gettysburg are doing that.”
Clark said this reflects the importance of working with professors.
“I think it’s a really great opportunity to bring undergrads into [research] just to expose us to that environment—expose us more to their field—because it’s sort of the side of being a professional that we don›t really see in the classroom,” he said, continuing by stating this one-on-one work with professors “expos[es] us to the research process in a more hands-on way.”
He expresses his appreciation for the professors that he worked with saying, “people like that are what makes Gettysburg a good school. That makes your experience at Gettysburg, I think. Having professors who aren’t just teachers, but are also acting as mentors for you. That’s the most valuable experience I think I’ve had here…”
When asked why these trips were so important, Clark discussed the importance of travel and the impact it can have.
“From my perspective, you kind of got one chance,” he said. “That’s one shot at life. So you either go there or you could not go there and when you die your perspective of the world—your experience, everything you touched, saw, tasted—it’s going to be dictated by what you did.”
Clark continued by discussing travel from an educational point of view. “The ability to talk to people in different countries and gain some insight into their perspective on things is so so valuable” as well as “to be able to witness things with your own eyes and sort of like construct conclusions in your mind about what you’re seeing using the stuff you’ve learned in class,” he said. Clark highlighted how this is very meaningful because “at this stage in our life we’re students. There’s something that feels so amazing and valuable about learning something in a class one semester and then going somewhere and seeing this thing.”
Clark stressed the importance of visiting foreign countries “because you can see things that shock you that you wouldn’t particularly see in your own country…It’s the same world, right? But, you’re living, in some ways, in a different one.”
This article originally appeared on pages 20 to 21 in the February 2023 edition of The Gettysburgian’s magazine.