On the afternoon of September 22, 19 Colgate students and three faculty and staff members boarded the bus to Washington, D.C. for Colgate’s ninth annual Robin Gottesman Fellowship trip. They were accompanied by Dr. Gottesman herself, Colgate Class of ’78. Focused on the themes of genocide, memory, forgiveness, representation and social justice, the trip provided an educational and thought-provoking opportunity to see many social issues from a different perspective.
“I think that there are multiple purposes of the trip,” Visting Assistant Professor in Educational Studies Mark Stern, one of the faculty trip leaders, said. “To know the history of the Holocaust, and what it means in relation to conflict today on both macro and micro levels. Also, to focus on museums and memorials as spaces where narratives get constructed.”
Dr. Gottesman’s reasons for beginning the trip nine years ago seem to remain consistent with the experience today.
“I guess the biggest thing that prompted me was that when I took Core Israel as a sophomore, one of my classmates said that the Jews made up the Holocaust to get sympathy and to allow them to settle in Israel. And he truly believed it. And what horrified me most was that in the classroom everyone was a bit dumbfounded, but nobody spoke up other than me – not even the professor,” Gottesman said.
“When people study their past and other peoples’ pasts, and they learn about the social injustices done to each other, they are more accepting of each other – it helps to cut down on prejudice we all have when we start to understand the past,” Gottesman said. “And this is especially relevant with what is going on at Colgate right now, with the clearly racist actions of certain individuals in the past week.”
The group was in DC from Thursday evening until Saturday afternoon. The most significant portion of the experience was spent in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, both looking at the exhibits and speaking to academics on staff. In addition, the group had the opportunity to meet a Holocaust survivor and hear him narrate his own life story, as well as to participate in a round table discussion about the Museum’s content and means of representation.
On Saturday morning, the Colgate delegation headed en masse to the National Mall to look at the World War II, Martin Luther King, Jr., Lincoln and Vietnam War Memorials. Students were asked to pay attention to the way in which “various aesthetics figure into different types of memorializing.” Afterwards, they headed to two of the Smithsonian Museums, one for an exhibit on race and one for an African-American History exhibit. In light of recent racial incidents on campus, the themes of the trip had more personal relevance to the group then any of its members might have imagined as they boarded the bus Thursday afternoon.
“The circumstances of this trip highlighted the importance of it, insofar as we were at these museums looking at the practices of discrimination, racism and violence while at the same time on our campus this incident happened…[that] provided another lens to put these museums in dialogue with our campus,” Stern said.
Students felt and understood this immediate relevance.
“I’m so glad that we had the opportunity to explore important issues, prevalent even on our own small campus, in an exterior and thought-provoking space,” sophomore Liza Solberg said.
“It was a nice change to talk with fellow students about the real issues, it was a much more intimate setting than ‘what-happened-downtown’ Coop chats,” junior Joelle Crabtree said. “You can’t hide from ugly truths when you’re stuck on a bus for seven hours. So when issues from campus were brought up between us, a lot of intense conversations followed.”
Other interesting conversations were also sparked, especially between students and faculty, that might never have emerged in a different venue.
“A student from China and I were talking about how memorials in America, the Lincoln Memorial in particular, compare to those in China for Mao. At first, her impression had been that there was a lot of difference between the two. But after we visited the Memorials, she came to realize that the aesthetic and the text were really similar at their core, even though the governments that constructed them were very different,” Assistant Professor of Educational Studies Melissa Kagle, one of the faculty trip leaders, said.
“I am very glad that I went on the trip. It was a wonderful opportunity to experience and witness memorials that every person of our generation should,” senior Liz Malugen said.
Many other participants echoed these same sentiments. The hopes of Gottesman, as well as the trip’s faculty and staff leaders, are that the experience will have a lasting impact on these students and on the Colgate community as a whole.
“You need to be intolerant of intolerance. You need to realize, when you tell a racist joke, when it stops being funny and becomes harmful,” Gottesman said.
The way to educate people on this, according to Gottesman, is to teach them about the despicable violence and social injustice present in recent human history.
Contact Rebekah Ward at [email protected]