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SPS Students in Belgium During Attacks

How SPS students relied on respect, flexibility in the wake of tragedy

Photo courtesy of Kelly Williams.

Danielle Davis said she and other School of Public Service students were having breakfast and about to enter the train station in Leuven, Belgium, when she heard there had been an explosion at the airport.

“We made our way to the train station in Leuven,” Davis said, “and when we arrived, we had just missed our train into Brussels.”

Such a close encounter registered only with a few students after they heard about the explosions just 20 minutes away in Belgium’s capital. Professor Joe Schwieterman said the students heard about the initial explosion at breakfast and about the second explosion as they were entering the train station in Leuven.

Davis, who is pursuing a degree in International Public Service, and 16 other SPS students were on a study abroad trip to Brussels with Schwieterman last week when terrorist assaults at the Brussels Airport and a train station killed more than 30 people and injured more than 300.

The students were in Belgium as part of a study abroad course, MPS 575, “Understanding the Global Public Sector: Impact and Influence of the European Union and NATO.”

The class is designed to “explore how globalization is affecting national governments and traditional cultures while encouraging the creation of international non-profits and supra-national governing agencies.” But the students had no idea just how tangible the lessons would become.

“I think I'm still processing it,” Davis said this week of the attacks. “I haven't really had time to sit and reflect on all of it. It still seems very surreal.”

Photo courtesy of Kelly Williams.

Davis said the group spent the previous afternoon at the European Parliament in Brussels and was headed to the European Commission on the day of the attacks.

She said students managed to carry on with their program for the remainder of the week. The trip included high-level visits with European policymakers and a day trip to a NATO air base.

“Professor Joe Schwieterman did not let this deter us from learning this day,” Davis said. “Although it was a sad day, we all spent the day together and were able to support one another.”

Professor Schwieterman said he was "so proud of our students for being flexible and highly respectful of those facing hardship due to these awful acts. We had a lot of tense moments, but banded together to make the best of a difficult situation."

Davis said DePaul University’s study abroad office immediately contacted Schwieterman and arranged travel back to Chicago once the Belgian government shut down the airport. She said the office also contacted students’ parents and kept them updated on their safety.

The group also received a security escort to the airport. “The study abroad office handled everything flawlessly,” Davis said. “They truly helped us all keep our stress levels down and be able to enjoy the remainder of our trip.”

Photo courtesy of Kelly Williams.
Such has become the standard for study abroad at U.S. universities including DePaul. With political instability and conflict affecting many regions of the world, university study abroad offices have prioritized student safety. NAFSA, the organization of international educators, has conducted conferences that carry similar emphasis, particularly after the Arab Spring.

My parents were pleased with the emails they received later that morning from the abroad office, and that the emails were full of information on every aspect on what was happening,” said Kelly Williams, another IPS student on the trip.

Regarding the political climate in Belgium, Williams said, “I talked with some local citizens, and they are upset because they just see themselves as a neutral country, and don't fully understand why they are being attacked.”

He added: “Other people saw it as an inevitable event, blaming the oversights on the Muslim neighborhoods and lack of security, and there was a bit of racial tension in those comments. Some other people blame the fact that there is a lack of assimilation and that those who migrate to these Muslim neighborhoods, like Molenbeek, are never welcomed into the rest of Brussels. And there is a lot of mistrust between the citizens and the police, which creates more fear and anger.”

Schwieterman said the events in Brussels "both saddened us and made us all realize how difficult it will be to maintain free movement of people throughout Europe.  The timing of these terrorist acts is especially inopportune for those seeking more humane policies for Syrian refugees"

Photo courtesy of Kelly Williams.
Two days after the attacks, Williams said the group visited the memorial site in Brussels and saw more than a thousand people there. He said he saw unity in the mourning of the victims. He saw people singing, chanting and hugging. “It was a positive environment,” he said.

Williams noted that riots involving left-wing and right-wing demonstrators that have since taken place there.

“Brussels is a very interesting city,” he said. “It is pretty divided between French and Flemish communities, and there is overall a serious lack of communication, it seems. That's why some people were not surprised about these attacks at all. Belgium and Brussels have some serious internal issues they need to mend in order to boost security and unity within the country.”

Williams said he considered it "fascinating and disheartening how nationalism and language" can still divide people, even within a single country.