Imagine going to a city where bike riding or public transit are the only forms of transportation. Picture living where wind turbine energy is the rule rather than the exception. Or envision an economic utopia that is 44 percent forest and boasts low unemployment, high wages, cutting edge technology and the corporate headquarters of Siemen’s, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche.
This is the landscape and some of the public policy realities—European style—that 20 Georgia State University students experienced as they studied abroad through the Andrew Young School’s Policy Studies in Europe program. Armed with a desire to learn how another country’s policies compare and contrast to the United States, the students received an education of a lifetime during the three-week Maymester.
AYSPS’s program is open to undergraduate and graduate students from any academic department at Georgia State University. This year’s group included students from policy studies, economics, film, nursing, political science and criminal justice. Faculty advisers Greg Streib, professor of public management and policy (PMAP), and Cynthia Searcy, AYSPS assistant dean and assistant professor of PMAP, accompanied the students to stops in several cities in Germany, France, Belgium and Luxembourg.
“Studying abroad enables students to be self-reliant and helps them to manage newness, adversity and complexity,” says Streib. “With study abroad, students are problem solvers and have to be willing to take risks and see things from a variety of perspectives.”
Streib and Searcy agree that study abroad is a great opportunity for students who never travelled outside the United States. It enables them to learn a new environment and interact with people from different cultures. The experience also forces students to deal with other people’s perceptions of them as Americans.
While immersing themselves into their new surroundings, the students were expected to demonstrate a basic knowledge of EU history and institutional structures, including comparing and contrasting EU and US policies as well as their strengths and weaknesses. This was accomplished through assigned readings, goal statements, case studies, group presentations and position papers.
“My favorite part of the experience and what I learned most about was how Europe recognizes that climate change is a serious issue and how they are working to combat it,” says Ryan Forman, an MPA student. “Europe is so far ahead of us in terms of working to reduce greenhouse gases and using renewable energy. When we were driving through Germany, we didn’t have to go far to see a wind turbine.”
The trip is appealing and eye-opening for students because it provides a cornucopia of cultural exposure.
“The students learn a lot about the EU, its institutions and its struggles,” says Searcy. “It allows them to understand different cultures, which is important for the development of future policymakers and analysts.”
In addition to climate change policy issues, students learned about Europe’s political and decision-making process when voting on a variety of policies in transportation, cultural diversity, economic development, environmental issues and health. They also toured sites like the German Stock Exchange in Frankfurt; the Burg Eltz Castle in Munster, Germany; the International Chamber of Commerce and the Louvre in Paris; the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg; the European Commission in Brussels; and Nazi concentration camps in Germany.
“Policies abroad, especially dealing with the European Union, can give less autonomy to partner countries than a national policy in the United States would to a state,” says MPP student James Osanyinbi. “Stronger countries are required to dig deep to help support the infrastructure of smaller countries such as the Eastern European countries. Furthermore, policies take a long time to get passed due to the many entities involved and the 20+ languages that European Union laws have to be transcribed into.”
They also visited the European Parliament, where they noted the differences in the electoral process between the European Union (EU) and the United States.
“Europe has the only multinational parliamentary assembly in the world, and the only EU institution that is directly elected by citizens,” says Omar Rodriquez, a senior economics major. “The United States is an electoral democracy which allows opposing candidates to compete against each other and even replace the incumbent. Further, Americans vote for a number of electors for representation in the general election. Debates in the EU are conducted in all EU official languages, an uncommon finding within the U.S. system. At the time of our visit, I learned the peculiarities of decision making where the European Parliament must pass legislation together with the EU Council. I quickly learned a parliamentary process involves drawing from the diverse cultures of Member States, therefore, reflecting the EU mantra-‘united in diversity’.”
Learning how to navigate the nuances of a foreign country was a welcome and sometimes challenging experience for the group.
“The experience taught us to be more independent by using our senses to navigate public transit, as well as order food with limited French and German language,” says Rodriquez. “I wanted to experience a culture shock where I can juxtapose the American lifestyle with the European ways. It was not my first time to appear as a minority, but it was particularly appealing to be a minority in a foreign country where the language and culture was noticeably different to America.”
“I learned that I can fit into many places based on my experiences, and that other countries may have a different way of doing things but that doesn’t mean that it is right or wrong,” says Osanyinbi. “I also learned the importance of speaking multiple languages and how Americans have been spoiled because everyone around the world learns English.”
So will the future see more U.S. cities voting on policies where bikes and public transit are their only forms of transportation?
“Europe is dense and the U.S. is not,” says Streib. “People ride bikes and take public transit a lot in Europe. Paris has a bike share program and in Germany you can get around everywhere on a bike. For them, density is not something to fear.”
Searcy agrees with Streib and also says that the EU’s environmental and energy policies are not only better than the U.S., but that they are embracing alternative forms of energy at a faster rate than us.
With an interest in combatting climate change by reducing emissions and emphasizing clean energy, Forman was intrigued by the EU’s cap and trade system, which originally flooded the market with permits.
“This was not the intention and they are working on reducing the permits in the future,” says Forman. “In one of my visits, I asked about what policy they would rather utilize because cap and trade hasn’t worked as it was intended. The presenter suggested a carbon tax.”
“When making comparisons, I learned to keep in mind the size of countries relative to the United States and our 300 million+ population,” says Osanyinbi. “This was important because scaling out some of the European policies such as mandatory recycling or rapid transit accessible to many citizens would be difficult in the United States.
“There are many things I learned but the most important lesson was that you can never ask enough questions because there is not just one answer to deep political dilemmas,” he continues. “We have to constantly seek out innovative ideas and cultivate a community where we can share those ideas with each other. The greatest resource we have is our ability to communicate and to connect the ideas we have to field study, implementation and evaluation.”