Travel Study Students Become Political Celebrities in Belgium

A newspaper in Belgium published articles about UC Berkeley students who commented on the political situation in the country.

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Photo: A newspaper in Belgium published articles about UC Berkeley students who commented on the political situation in the country.    

While some UC Berkeley students spend their college careers preparing to tackle the problems of the world, students who took Dutch 177 this summer were given the opportunity to try sooner than expected.

The students, who visited the Netherlands and Belgium on a UC Berkeley travel study summer course, were asked to write an article for the Belgian newspaper Der Morgen with suggestions for how the nation should respond to its current political crisis.

The country is deeply divided into two groups-the northerners, who identify themselves as Flemish and speak Dutch, and those who live in the southern province of Wallonia and speak French. In 2007, the Flemish Christian Democrats gained the majority of parliamentary seats on a platform advocating splitting Belgium into two separate nations.

The students shared their ideas and knowledge about the situation during a lecture given in July by former Deputy Prime Minister Johan vande Lanotte. A reporter who was present was so impressed that he asked them to write an opinion piece with their suggestions for his Belgian paper. The article was published, under a headline that translates to "University of Berkeley Saves Belgium."

The students-whose majors range from political science to integrative biology-suggested increasing the flow of capital into the less prosperous Wallonian region and making Dutch and French classes mandatory nationwide in order to bridge a language gap considered to be the root of much of the turmoil.

The fate of the city of Brussels was a matter of particular contention, since it is vital to both groups. The students diverged in their thoughts on how to partition the capital city.

"If the two regions split, I think that it should remain on the Flemish side, since it has traditionally been a Flemish city," said Carla Nacinopa, a mass communications and political science major, in the radio interview that the students gave after the article was published.

Senior Andy Birnbaum, a political science major, disagreed by saying, "It would make the most sense for me for Brussels to be a separate entity altogether � sort of a concentrated bilingual region of its own."

The article generated a huge amount of attention for the students. They were recognized wherever they traveled for the remainder of their trip, thanks in part to a photo that accompanied their article. The plan also generated a spirited debate on Der Morgen's online message boards.

"Some people were very positive," said Dutch studies professor Jeroen Dewulf, who led the class for the first time this summer. "Others were very critical; some people were kind of embarrassed that people who had only arrived very recently were making suggestions that would almost change completely the political situation in Belgium."

Some commenters on the message board even invoked the students' Californian roots, relating their proposal that northern Flanders should send financial support to southern Wallonia to one in which California would send a large part of its wealth to Mexico.

Tony Joris, a law professor at the University of Brussels who helped organize the radio interview, said the students' suggestions were "maybe a bit naive."

"Of course they have no complete knowledge of the reasons behind the political crisis in Belgium, but not (as) sentimental as many of the criticism in Belgium is right now," he said, adding that he believed their opinion was "very welcome" by the public.

The students acknowledge that their proposal may have neglected some of the nuances of Belgian politics, but to a certain degree that was the point. As outsiders, they were able to approach the situation with an objectivity that the country's natives could not.

"We only had a limited understanding, not being from that area," Birnbaum said. "But what was impressive was so many people did read it and were interested in what we had to say � It really made me proud to be a Berkeley student and made me understand just how prestigious much of the world believes our university to be."

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