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A&S students gain transformative field experience in Republic of Georgia

Photo pf: Matthew Korda, Emily Tsui, Kendal Andison, David Kitai, Misha Boutilier, Gigi Gigiadze, Professor Robert Austin, Zoe Smale, Madeline Klimek, and Sonia Liang.

Students met with the Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister, Gigi Gigiadze. L-R: Matthew Korda, Emily Tsui, Kendall Andison, David Kitai, Misha Boutilier, Gigi Gigiadze, Professor Robert Austin, Zoe Smale, Madeline Klimek and Sonia Liang.

Nine undergraduates left for the Republic of Georgia in February as novice researchers and returned a week later with solid field research experience under their belts.

The students, members of Professor Robert Austin’s class, Enlarging Europe: the European Union and Its Applicants, credit the Faculty of Arts & Science International Course Module program with deepening their understanding of the region’s politics, along with their grasp of the research process.

“For many of us, it was the first time doing primary research,” said Sonia Liang, a third-year political science student. “It was very valuable to speak to our sources firsthand. The political landscape in Georgia changes so fast; it was really beneficial.”

Kendall Andison, a fourth-year political science student, gained a new appreciation for the value of assessing sources of information.

“It has definitely shaped the way I look at data and scholarly sources,” Andison said. “I learned how much can be manipulated, depending on who’s presenting the information.”

Hectic Pace

The students also had a lesson about the working world. Austin treated the journey like a business trip, holding team meetings each morning before the students put in a full day of meetings and interviews. Each day ended with a team debriefing before dinner.

“The workload is like doing an additional credit,” said Austin, who has been conducting ICMs since the program first began nine years ago, in addition to offering summer courses in Austria and Czech Republic.

Students in his 70-person class applied to take part in the subsidized trip by submitting research proposals. Austin chose the top nine, including research on how the Soviet period and Stalin were remembered; the nation’s fledgling lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) rights; and regional co-operation and identity.

He then put and puts the students to work compiling an extensive briefing book about the country that they all studied in advance. The students also identified the stakeholders they wanted to meet and worked on arranging interviews before boarding the airplane. A minimum of 10 interviews per student was required.

“Field research can be transformative for careers,” Austin said “I’ve always felt that if you’re studying an area, you’d better get to the region.”

Another Reality

The youthful travellers experienced a country very different from Canada: impoverished, church-oriented and still affected by its Soviet past. Georgia’s residents are looking toward an alliance with the European Union as a possible way forward.

“It was emblematic of a city in transition, trying to orient itself toward Europe, but grappling with its Soviet legacy,” Andison said.

Now that she has visited Georgia, Elizabeth Tudor, a third-year political science and European studies student, is eager to monitor its progress.

“A lot of people are very pro-European Union,” she said. “I’ll be interested to see how their expectations compare with the reality.”

The group was amazed to discover how willing officials and representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were to meet with them and how frank and interested they were in the students’ work.

“In interviews, people would come out and say, ‘I want to be in Europe,’ ” said Matthew Korda, a third-year European studies student. “They also asked us to send our papers to them, because the government is looking for new ideas.”

Despite all the hard work they put in to prepare for the trip and the busy days throughout, the group is ready to do it all over again.

“It was 100 per cent worth it,” said Liang.

Watch the Video:

The students discuss the Georgia trip in their own words in this video, created by Emily Tsui, a third-year international relations student.