Being in an unfamiliar country can be an intimidating experience, but for interdisciplinary studies major Erin O’Connor ’15, it’s a passion.
Since enrolling at Gettysburg College, O’Connor has traveled to 17 countries over the last four years. Her studies have brought her to Denmark, Morocco, Trinidad and Tobago, Poland, and Turkey. Her thrill for travel has sent her to Germany, Austria, France, Hungary, Sweden, Norway, Czech Republic, Ireland, and Luxemburg. And her music has resonated in China, Singapore, and Nicaragua.
“I knew coming to Gettysburg, I wanted to take advantage of everything that was available to me,” O’Connor said, “but I would never have imagined I would have all these opportunities.”
A French horn player in the Sunderman Conservatory of Music’s Wind Symphony and an alto in the College Choir, O’Connor has used music as a platform to communicate with others from around the world. On a trip to China and Singapore for the “East Meets West Tour” in January 2014, she played alongside and learned from native brass musicians, and during spring break this March, she was given the opportunity to sing Beautiful Savior for an archbishop in Nicaragua’s Leon Cathedral.
In Denmark during her junior year, O’Connor dove into a unique education studies program, Child Diversity and Development, through the Danish Institute for Study Abroad. The cultural, hands-on immersion experience allowed her to enter Copenhagen public schools and help develop new lesson plans with local teachers and educators.
And this past fall, O’Connor became a project leader for a Center for Public Service Immersion Trip to Morocco, designed to expand students’ understanding of women’s rights, especially challenging Western misconceptions of Muslim women. The 10-day trip included discussions with a variety of organizations, such as Amnesty International, the Center for Cross Cultural Learning, and many more.
“We learned about the history of the hijab and how wearing the hijab in public spaces began as an Islamic feminist movement to empower women. It was really eye-opening,” O’Connor remarked. “Throughout the week, the idea that there is no one type or example of a Muslim woman or Islamic country is something I will always remember about this trip.”
By living with host families and visiting historical cities like Casablanca and Rabat, O’Connor and fellow Gettysburgians immersed themselves in Moroccan culture. They learned conversational Arabic, made Moroccan tea and bread, and toured mosques and palaces.
“A lot of growth can happen when you’re able to meet new people and experience new things,” she said. “I think it’s made me a more open-minded person and helped me appreciate how much diversity there is in the world. It’s important to understand how history, culture, and politics all intertwine to create what we see today.”
Perhaps O’Connor’s most inspirational experience abroad, however, was when she visited Trinidad and Tobago.
Traveling with Prof. Hakim Williams’ Africana Studies class, Human Rights in the Caribbean, she worked with nonprofit organizations and government officials to gain a greater understanding on human rights and social justice issues.
“When comparing [our experience abroad] to what we learned in the classroom, we were able to see that theory doesn’t always translate perfectly into practice,” she observed.
While in Laventille, Williams’ hometown, O’Connor remembers her professor giving heartfelt, spur-of-the moment lectures to local community members. She was struck by Williams’ passion and dedication to fighting for education equity and social change.
“He’s an incredibly inspiring man,” she said of Williams. “Being in his presence makes you want to create change and helps you to realize that change is possible.”
After studying in Trinidad and Tobago, O’Connor served as a Heston Summer Intern in the Center for Public Service’s Migrant Education Program in Biglerville, Pennsylvania. Working with the Lincoln Intermediate Unit #12 Summer School of Excellence, O’Connor was a higher education classroom assistant, teaching classes of 15-30 students every day. Today, O’Connor continues to tutor with LIU.
So what motivates a student to spend four years expanding her mind and capturing a lifetime of memories across 17 different countries?
“Because of that class, I got a more global perspective,” O’Connor said. “It made me want to get involved in things more meaningful to me.”
Upon completing the course, Cain also urged O’Connor to apply to a newly developed program, the Diversity Peer Educators, a group composed of students and faculty dedicated to facilitating conversations of diversity on campus. Fast-forward to today—O’Connor is now the vice president of the organization, working closely with fellow Gettysburgians to create a more inclusive campus community through dialogue, art, and lectures.
O’Connor hopes to one day become a school counselor, guiding students towards a successful future and facilitating personal growth. The job requires passion and an understanding of diverse populations, characteristics that O’Connor has cultivated in her experiences at Gettysburg and abroad.
“The most important thing is to bring these global experiences back with you and have them be part of who you are. It’s easy to leave them abroad, but I’ve tried to incorporate everything I’ve learned into my life here at Gettysburg and beyond.”