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September 2018 - Matthew Harmon

September 2018

Matthew Harmon

BA International Studies (Comparative Culture and Identity); minor, Playwriting ‘20

Hometown: Royal Oak, Michigan

Affiliations: Senior News Editor at the Michigan Daily and Co-President of Empty Mug Records

“International internships supported by the Program in International and Comparative Studies (PICS) have really been the source of my most impactful experiences. Without the emotional and financial support from PICS, I never would have been able to witness and play a role in moments of my life that have frankly shaped who I am today. Rather than provide a brief overview of my trips, I would like to recount two specific memories that will stay with me for many years to come. Although my words cannot do the images justice compared to living through them, I hope these stories will highlight just how important international travel, especially for those who might not have the resources to do so, can be.

Last summer, I left Michigan with my bags packed for Warsaw, Poland, to work for, a Polish culture website hosted by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute. In brief, works to spread interesting stories and knowledge about Poland's influence in the arts, sciences, and culture to readers who might not know how much Poland has impacted the cultural landscape. There, I was doing what I loved: writing about the arts, exploring a new city, and learning about another culture I previously did not encounter much in my everyday life. While the job was incredibly enriching and did help me narrow down what I would like to do post-graduation (when the inevitable day comes), one specific night in the city opened my eyes to where I could see myself in five or ten years.

Although the event did occupy a prominent spot on the front page of The New York Times the day after the event, I have found not many Americans were aware of the protests against the Polish government in the summer of 2017. In summary, the majority Law and Justice (PiS) party seemed poised to pass a law that would allow Parliament to appoint supreme court justices—a major breach in judicial integrity and a move the European Union fervently warned PiS not to make. My office was abuzz the day the bill was passed by the lower and upper Parliaments. That night, the citizens of Warsaw against the bill were planning a massive demonstration to show the government where they stood on the issue. With the help of some trusted friends and coworkers in the city who spoke Polish and knew the plan, I headed into the streets and joined the marches. Shouting demokracja (democracy) and other phrases in Polish, we ended up in front of the Presidential Palace. Suddenly, everyone began passing out small white candles wrapped in tin foil to keep our fingers from being singed. As my friends gathered around to block our flames from the slight breeze, a voice came over a loud speaker. The protest organizers were reading the Polish Constitution and every time the speaker reached a line about the courts, the entire crowd would erupt in applause and cheers. Being able to witness this massive organizing effort to confront discrimination and an abuse of power took my breath away. As I wove through the crowd to take pictures, I felt a rush. I immediately knew the environment I thrived in: I belong on the ground, gathering information and reporting on the events transpiring halfway across the world. Nowadays, I still tell this story, and I get a similar feeling of excitement. If I were in another country, reporting on large news stories and cultural moments, I would be ecstatic.

My second short story comes from an experience I had only a month ago during my internship with Ankuri in Dehradun, India. I was a media intern, filming interviews and taking promotional photographs for the organization, but also taught a class in the local high school and wrote plays for production at the elementary school. The moment I would like to describe is one where the interns and I travelled down the road to play football with some kids from the village, some of whom we also taught. When we arrived at the soccer field, which is more accurately described as a dirt rectangle with small stones and pebbles causing the ball to bounce in unexpected ways, I was shocked by the abundance of untapped talent in this one spot. Although I am not a very good metric to measure athletic ability by, I chalk at least part of their skill up to their dedication to the game. When I was first told we were going to play football with the kids, I assumed someone had organized the game with the students for a specific time, and if we couldn’t come for whatever reason, the game would be postponed. Soon after, I was informed we were not an instrumental piece to the game, but rather more players to a re-occurring event. They play every night at the same time. The same kids show up and cycle in and out of play like a ballet with a rotating ensemble, and we were just thrown in as cast members. Without us, the show still would go on. The game didn’t depend on us, it depended on the ball--and the ball is their world, constantly spinning and rotating like clockwork. I know very little about professional football; however, I know some of the big names: Ronaldo, Neymar, Messi. All three players were represented on this field in Dehradun, on the backs of jerseys. While standing on the side with my camera raised to my eye, the name Messi shined on the back of a boy’s jersey. Another boy noticed my camera’s aim and ran to our Messi. He emphatically shook the boy’s hand, yelling, “Oh my God! It’s Messi! It’s Messi!” Our Messi turned around, and his smile was beaming. He pointed to his name with his thumbs and sped back into the fray. Despite a lack of actual equipment like cleats and a real turf field to play on, the player played on and loved every minute of it.

If I could thank PICS for any two moments, it would be these. Being able to travel across the Atlantic and partake in the protest and the football game have changed my outlook on the role of journalism in our society, global advocacy, the support of passions in rural communities, and the necessity of financial aid programs to ensure everyone who wants to has the opportunity to travel abroad. Without financial assistance, I would not have been able to participate in these internships and would likely be a different person today without them. All students should be able to travel and communicate with cultures different than their own, and the Program in International and Comparative Studies tries their hardest to make this possible.”

Future plans: “If I am not writing in any capacity post graduation, I have completely changed my current plan. Whether this manifests itself in journalism, arts and culture writing, NGO work for an organization like Human Rights Watch, or playwriting (an ultimate wish that has recently become more of a potential reality rather than a dream), I cannot say. However, words are some of the last tools we have in this world. Words conjure images which conjure landscapes which conjure emotions, and emotions create measurable impact in this world. If I could spend the rest of my life writing and spreading stories of different cultures to facilitate global understanding, I would be completely content. This is a lot to ask, but I am working towards this goal every year.”