College of Liberal Arts | Spring 2021

Human rights on the move

Although she had never visited Hungary before, the setting seemed familiar to Sophie Wu as she walked the streets of Budapest this summer.

The drab housing structures and gray architecture remaining from the city’s stint behind the Iron Curtain were eerily similar to the area where she grew up in Beijing.

“Where I grew up is an old town and where we lived in Budapest is almost identical to where I grew up. It was almost like a déjà vu moment,” said Wu, a graduate student in food science who along with 13 other Purdue students visited Hungary, Germany, and Slovakia on the “Human Rights on the Move” Maymester trip. “When we were going to Hungary, I never thought it would have this vast Communist district and the block houses. It’s stunning to see.”

This is one small example of the perspective trip organizers Rebekah Klein-Pejšová, associate professor of history and Jewish studies, and Christopher Yeomans, department head and professor of philosophy, hoped students would gain on the trip abroad. Learning about a country’s history within a comfortable academic setting provides a thumbnail sketch of what makes the area unique. Truly understanding what daily life there is like requires first-hand exposure.

“When you’re here learning about European history or world history, it’s still very difficult to picture that this is about real people,” Wu said. “They’re facing the same crises that we face, but in a different context, and they have their own history that shaped who they are. You have to go there to experience their true people. I feel it’s very difficult to sit outside that context and learn it in class.”

Alex Mullenix, a senior in political science who also made the trip, agreed with Wu’s assessment, adding that “an interesting thing that can come about through education is you can read about things, but if you experience it, you now have that knowledge.”

The students gained their share of knowledge and experience during the trip abroad, which ran from May 14 through June 8. They interacted with students and faculty at their host institution – Central European University – participated in a cookout with students from the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts, met representatives of non-governmental organizations in the region, and attended conferences, all while experiencing everyday life while living in a new place.

They also got a small taste of home at a graduate conference where Wu and Alzbeta Hajkova, a graduate student in philosophy who also helped organize the trip, were among the presenters. Purdue academics in the region like Amber Nickell – a Ph.D. candidate who spent the last year in the Odessa region of Ukraine conducting dissertation research as a Fulbright Research Fellow – also attended, turning the conference into a mini Boilermaker reunion.

“Basically everybody from Purdue who was in the region showed up, which was nice,” Hajkova said.

The student group lived in dormitories at Budapest’s CEU for the first and third weeks of the trip, with a week in Bratislava sandwiched in between. They spent the final week in Germany, visiting sites in Munich, Nuremberg, and Dachau that will forever be linked to some of the most egregious human rights violations in world history. The students’ weekends were free, and they took advantage by traveling throughout the continent to places like Rome, Vienna, Prague, Krakow, and Croatia.

CEU was in many ways a perfect host site for a trip that revolved around human rights. The university is under fire from the Hungarian government, in part because of its dedication to aiding immigrants.

“Most of the people that we spoke with and met with on our study abroad trip are in danger,” said Klein-Pejšová, director of the Human Rights Program at Purdue. “About a week after we got back from the program, the government criminalized helping migrants. It’s now an act that can get you jail time to help people who are migrants for any reason.”

Understandably, immigration was one of the key discussion topics throughout the trip. Just as it has become a hot-button issue in the United States, migration is also a subject of great dissension throughout Europe.

“Every place that we visited, this issue of immigration is front-and-center,” Yeomans said.

The professors emphasized that a unique aspect of the trip was that it allowed students to approach conversations about immigration – or any other issue – from a more open-minded perspective than they might employ stateside. Because in most cases they were only beginning to learn about immigration and cultural identity in various corners of Europe, the students were able to assess situations free from the partisan bias that many Americans immediately inject into conversations about immigration in the U.S.

“When they go to a place where they don’t know all the fault lines to start with and they’re just approaching it as people-to-people, then you can start having the conversation,” Klein-Pejšová said. “Because this is a conversation about human dignity and what kind of needs we have to fulfill in order to promote human dignity.”

Yeomans agreed, adding, “Dealing with the abstract theoretical issues is a way of breaking the hold of those initial prejudices that everybody has. Going to another place and dealing with issues that you also have at home, but dealing with them in a new context, can sort of break the hold of those initial prejudices, too, and then that gives you the space where you can really think.”

Of course an ever-present angle in discussions about these regional and global issues was their similarities to events at home.

“In many ways, we tried to resist at the beginning being like, ‘This thing that’s happening reminds me of this back home,’” said Mullenix, who traveled to Washington, D.C. immediately after returning home in order to participate in an internship program with the Federal Reserve System. “You want to try to live in the moment and not necessarily try to compare everything, but the parallels were always strong and it was always a good reference point.”

In some cases, the students came away motivated to find solutions to issues they knew little about prior to the trip. For example, some came away convicted to help people – like those from the region’s Romani population – from communities that are subject to segregation and exclusion.

“It was so nice to see that they knew zero about it and at the end of the trip, they were like, ‘I want to learn more about this issue,’ and they were also drawing parallels between the history of the United States and the history of segregation and racism,” Hajkova said. “That was my favorite thing to see, that they cared within four weeks about an issue that they didn’t know anything about when they came there.”

That was, in essence, the purpose of the trip, the first of what the professors hope will become an every-other-year option for Purdue students with an interest in human rights. They wanted to expose students to aspects of these issues that were both universal – the basic needs that all humans have – and particular – placing questions of cultural understanding in the proper local and historical context – in order to provide lasting memories that will inform the students’ perspectives for years to come.

“A lot of it is about broadening their horizons and gaining that international comparative experience as a human being,” Klein-Pejšová said. “We really put a lot of emphasis on the human part of human rights in the program, going as an individual human being and just trying to connect, seeing how these issues connect us as human beings to other people and other places and times, and that we think historically and philosophically and so on about how those issues connect us.”