Study Abroad Column: Abroad, But Not Disengaged


Megan Leo discusses her take on American politics from her trip abroad in London.

On January 19, I got on a plane for my study abroad program and landed in London eight hours before Donald J. Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. While I waited for the shuttle to take me from Heathrow to my new residence, an airport employee overheard my American accent. He made a snide comment about Trump’s upcoming Inauguration, and concluded with, “Let’s just hope somebody shoots him.”

I was appalled. All I could do was blink in surprise and say, “I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.” The shuttle pulled up, and I stepped on, luggage in tow.

Several weeks later, I waited outside the Palace of Westminster for a guided tour of Parliament. Even though it was a Saturday, there was heightened security all over the property  ––  a stark contrast to most of the police officers in London, who do not carry guns. At Parliament, however, the armed guards carried semi-automatic weapons. One of these guards heard my American accent, and slowly walked over to the group I was with. He introduced himself and made polite conversation. Then he abruptly changed the topic, saying, “I’m going to ask you each a question. Now, keep in mind what I have in my hands,” as he motioned to his weapon.

He paused and asked, “Who did you vote for?”

Although this was the first presidential election I’ve had the opportunity to vote in, I’ve always known there was some sort of taboo around asking people who they had voted for. My mom had taught me that it’s impolite to ask people about several things: their age, their weight and how they voted at the polls.

This guard seemed totally unaware that his question could, in fact, be very personal. He kept staring at us as he held his gun, waiting for us to respond. We each answered – haltingly – and told this stranger the answer to his question. Satisfied with our answers, he smiled and told us to have a nice visit to Parliament. Then he left.

I have never stepped foot in President Trump’s America. Some people I have met in London have joked that I must be studying abroad not to further my education, but to escape the United States. Even though I am not currently in the United States, I have by no means “escaped” it, and I do not intend to use my time in London to disconnect from the conversations and tensions rippling throughout my country.

In the age of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle, I am constantly in the proverbial loop regarding what Trump is doing as Commander-in-Chief. I see pictures of my friends attending rallies and exercising their rights to assembly and speech.

In the United Kingdom, there have been protests nearly every week regarding Trump. Graffiti litters the alleyways, proclaiming that “Love Trumps Hate.”

I am reminded whilst in London, that hundreds of thousands of people who have no say in American politics still feel that their voice matters, and that their voices must be heard. I am in London for three more months. After those months pass, I’ll get back on an airplane and enter Trump’s America.

The airport employee’s comment still upsets me. Abraham Lincoln’s quote, “The ballot is stronger than the bullet,” often comes to my mind. During my month abroad, I have often lowered my voice to avoid being asked for my opinion on the state of things in America. I’ve looked down at the ground as I’ve hurriedly walked past a protest by Trafalgar’s Square asking Parliament to cancel Trump’s state visit to the U.K. I keep up-to-date with American news, but have failed to use my voice.

Leaving the United States has not given me the chance to disconnect from politics. It has not allowed me to become apathetic, or to ease into complete disengagement. I have not lived in Trump’s America, but I am spending my months in London preparing for my return. I am repeating the mantra over and over again in my head that ballots are stronger than bullets and that my engagement matters. My involvement matters.

Studying abroad has not been an escape. I haven’t escaped school work, family stress, health issues –– the list goes on. I also haven’t escaped the current political discourse. I hope that, when I return home, I will find an America that remains engaged and seeks to hold its representatives accountable. I can march alongside Londoners here, but I can vote alongside Americans in the United States.