U.S. Election: A Perspective from Abroad

This year was my first time voting in a presidential election; it’s the same for many of my U.S. friends studying abroad with me. We couldn’t help but notice how odd it was watching it from across the ocean. Sitting in Scotland, reading BBC and the New York Times, scrolling through Twitter and Facebook, it looked like the 2016 presidential election was a circus. I can come up with no better way to describe it.

At times, I was ashamed of my fellow citizens. At times I was immensely proud, but always I was conscious of the thousands of miles separating us during such a crucial time in U.S. history. I watched what was going on through a computer screen. I voted, yes, but I didn’t feel like an active participant in what was happening in my home country and I wonder what I would have done had I been in Chicago.

I’m not a particularly active member of my political community. I follow the elections and vote in the big ones; I do what is expected of me as a U.S. citizen. But this year, for the first time, it was during a presidential election that I wished I could have done more.

Consequently, I was excited to speak with Cody Frost, a student on the IFSA-Butler Parliamentary Internship program in Edinburgh. If it was frustrating for me being an observer during this critical time, I was curious how someone with a strong interest in politics would react to this unnerving experience: being part of, yet separate from, our communities.

A view of the New Parliament Building
Edinburgh’s New Parliament Building is situated at the foot of Arthur’s Seat and across from Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s residence in Edinburgh.

First, let me introduce Cody. He’s a third year student from Drake University majoring in international relations. Our first meeting was during the IFSA-Butler reunion meal a couple weeks into the term. Ruth, the IFSA-Butler resident director, introduced us. We discovered we attended rival high schools near Chicago and he was currently dating an old friend of mine. I recently saw her for the first time in about three years in Inverness, Scotland. The world can be a remarkably small place, my friends.

I knew that the Parliamentary Internship program drew people with a wide range of interests, so I started by asking Cody what he hoped to do after graduation. Of course, as a fellow junior, I know that can be a rather nerve-wracking question with looming thoughts of the future and being an actual adult, but Cody answered very well. He wants to go into international work, whether it’s with the government or not, and do “something you can make a difference with.” I can’t help but think that this an admirable goal and one that’s bound to see an insurgence in my generation and the one following, given the state of affairs in the world at the moment. Between the decision of the U.K. to leave the E.U., the election of a president with a completely different mentality than his predecessor in the U.S. or — what in particular interested Cody — the 2015 Paris Agreement signed by 195 countries pledging to reduce emissions and slow down global warming. It’s clear to my generation that the world is undergoing rapid change; we just need people to lead and guide this change.

Inside wall design of the Debating Chamber
Inside the Debating Chamber, windows shaped like the silhouettes of people remind Parliament for whose sake they are there.

As an international relations major, Cody knew that he wanted to study abroad — preferably somewhere where he knew the language and “somewhere [he] could get experience in the field and relate it back.” He considered Germany, but there was no hands-on experience; checked out the University of British Columbia, but decided it was too close and naturally looked at England, since he “knew they have a lot of politics down in London,” but ultimately decided it wasn’t quite right. After hearing about IFSA-Butler Parliamentary Internship program at a study abroad fair at his school, Cody was drawn to Edinburgh. The program was more close-knit, with more opportunities to get involved since there are fewer students. Seeking hands-on experience, it was a natural choice for Cody.

Next, I asked Cody to describe the program for me; he compared it to a summer course. The first five weeks are classes — he took British Politics, Scottish Politics, and Scottish Society and Culture — that ended with an exam. It was “rather intensive and fast paced”. He was quite excited to move onto the internship itself.

Now, Cody spends Monday through Thursday working with David Torrance, a Member of Scottish Parliament (MSP). Most of his attention is focused on a research paper, which is due at the end of the term. The topic was decided by him, the internship coordinator, as well as the MSP with whom he works. He’s researching renewable and alternative energy in the industrial sector and says it’s rewarding to actually be doing something useful; it’s different than a research paper in a normal class, where the only point is the grade. Now, his effort is actually accomplishing something.

In addition, Cody helps respond to constituents, passes out leaflets, researches motions and drafts speeches. “It’s a very broad range,” he says. However, the one thing he doesn’t touch is the phone — “simply because I don’t trust myself and the other person is the office has been there a while and knows what she’s doing.” As a former cashier at a pizza place, I can sympathize with this! You never know who’s going to be on the other line, after all.

Cody has gotten used to this sort of schedule, but I can’t help but marvel at it. I sit here, writing an essay just to get the grade back, and it feels pointless. In my head, I understand that it’s a part of my education and it is important. But at the same time, I can’t help but wonder how researching fairy legends for my Scotland and Orality course will help anyone. But Cody says, thinking about it, he knows what he’s doing is useful “but it doesn’t feel useful as I’m doing it’s like, I’m supposed to do this, alright.” that’s not to say he doesn’t marvel at the fact that he’s working side by side with the same people he reads about in the papers or see in the news!

The Debating Chamber
The Debating Chamber has seats for the MSPs, the Presiding Officer, the media and the general public; tickets are free to see the debates in session on business days.

He says that this experience has provided a new perspective for him. His favorite thing is that “you see the impact that certain things can have. You can better understand how your actions can directly influence people.” It’s one thing knowing that you want to do something that will make a difference and quite another to learn how to put this into practice. Writing motions, doing research — you can see how even the littlest things can make a difference. Although, he says, “they don’t teach how much a pain the butt [writing motions] is at my university” and he’s grateful for the practice!

Being abroad, you can’t help but compare your host country with your home country. Especially during this year’s election and the aftermath, you notice how your country could do better. For Cody, although the election was part of it, he became increasingly aware of how little we’ve done for the environment, at least compared to Scotland. He says that, “Working for David, who focuses on the environment and things, it’s given me more of an interest in it, but you see more how he’s trying to help and the efforts he’s making. Looking back home, it’s so depressing. We’ve done nothing. 320 odd million who haven’t done anything is so sad. We’re lagging impossibly far behind.” For him, it’s unbelievable – almost shameful – how the U.S. could have all this land, all these resources and people, but have a president-elect who expressed a desire to step away from the Paris Agreement and denies global warming? Cody believes that America should aim to be more like Scotland, who, he informed me, is on track to be fully powered by renewable energy by 2020.

Structural supports meant to resemble the Saltire
The New Parliament Building was built at the turn of the twenty first century and is full of abstract symbolism, some of which remains undecipherable today, as the lead architect passed away during the first year of construction. These supports are meant to reference the Saltire and St. Andrew’s Cross.

It’s true that our interview went on for twice as long as originally planned, since we kept going off topic to discuss the election, which had concluded only days before, but both of us found this new perspective eye-opening. We both want to be home, standing up for what we believe in, but there’s so much to learn here. The U.S. isn’t perfect — that’s quite obvious from the beginning — but seeing other countries succeed in places where we’re failing, Cody has new ideas and dreams to bring back home. Being a part of the Parliamentary Internship Program has shown him how we might fix the broken parts; he’s grateful for the hands on experience he’s gained and from the bits of his goals that he’s divulged, I can tell he is looking forward to returning and putting it to use.

Megan McClory is a History, Anthropology, and East Asian Studies student with a minor in English at Brandeis University and studied abroad with IFSA Butler at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 2016. Megan was an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-to-Study Program.

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