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Faculty, Students Witness British European Union Exit Vote during Study Abroad

Fri, 06/24/2016 - 15:23pm | By: David Tisdale

Students participating in the University of Southern Mississippi's British Studies Program in London this summer were eyewitnesses to history June 23 as the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in the highly anticipated “Brexit” referendum. Holding copies of the London Evening Standard announcing the result of the referendum include, from left, Scott Avery; Maggie Benvenutti; Lauren Gardner; Grace Parfitt; and Emilee Carvo. (Photo by Dr. David R. Davies)

Students and faculty participating in The University of Southern Mississippi's popular British Studies program witnessed history June 23 as the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union (EU) in the much anticipated “Brexit” referendum and British Prime Minister David Cameron resigned.

The decision to put the UK's membership in the EU to a vote is considered a dramatic political and economic move by experts on international relations, and potentially initiates more than two years of negotiations on the terms under which the UK leaves, and subsequent relationship with the rest of Europe.

“Our students are witnessing firsthand political events of huge proportions,” said Dr. Dave Davies, director of the British Studies Program, which has 121 students studying in Central London for a month this summer. “The referendum is all anyone is talking about, both people on the street and professionals who are lecturing to our classes.”

In fact, Davies said, the referendum on Britain's status in the EU has been a significant learning opportunity for the Program's students, since EU membership affects virtually all aspects of British life across all subject areas taught in British Studies, including history, political science, English literature, journalism, and business.

“We pride ourselves in British Studies on offering students an immersive, active-learning experience in Britain, but being here for this kind of political sea change exceeds our highest hopes for this kind of active learning. The students are fascinated to be in the midst of such a worldwide story.”

According to the EU's website, the organization is a unique economic and political union between 28 countries that cover much of the continent. It was created in the aftermath of the WWII. The first steps were to foster economic cooperation, with the idea being that countries that trade with one another become economically interdependent and so more likely to avoid conflict. The initial result was the European Economic Community (EEC), created in 1958, and increasing economic cooperation between Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

History professor Andrew Wiest, who has made multiple trips “across the pond” to teach British Studies students about World War II and other topics, said that as a historian it was compelling to have been in the heart of London as history was being made.

“Britain choosing to leave the EU could lead to a number of different outcomes, ranging from relatively minor shocks to the international trading and monetary systems to the potential collapse of the EU itself, and perhaps the disintegration of the United Kingdom,” Wiest said.

“Even more importantly, though, Southern Miss students were here living history. They have been talking to everyone about the events, from leading academics and business people to folks that they meet in the local supermarket. To these Southern Miss students, who are standing at the threshold of history, these are events they will never forget.”

Students in this year's British Studies Program shared their perspectives on the Brexit vote:

*Solai Wyman, a graduate student in political science at USM from Bay St. Louis, Miss., said living in London during the referendum painted a picture about the situation that wasn't entirely accurate. “RemaIN propaganda (favoring staying in the EU) was everywhere, even on a banner being flown across the sky over Parliament. It was offered to me by old and young alike, white and non-white,” Wyman said. “It seemed like the people wanted the U.K. to maintain its membership in the EU. However, that was not the case and London was an exception to the rest of England.”

*Casey Trexler, an undergraduate student at USM from Biloxi, Miss., said it was a memorable experience being in the U.K. during such a historic event. She echoed Wyman's sentiments. “It was shocking to find out that the people voted to leave after being surrounded by people who constantly showed support for staying,” Trexler said. “It will be interesting to see what the future holds for the UK."

*Bradley Thomas, a graduate student in political science at USM from Pascagoula, Miss., said that as a U.S. citizen he was shocked by the amount of U.K. citizens who were interested in his opinion on the referendum. “In all, my experiences in London have driven home the fact that political actions, in this day and time, no longer happen in a vacuum,” he said. “Although I am sure the market will bounce back after the initial shock, the results from the decision to ‘Brexit' show just how interconnected we all are in contemporary politics."

Dr. Marek Steedman, a native of Scotland and an associate professor of political science at USM who is teaching a class for the British Studies Program, says it's not an understatement to call the vote a “political and economic earthquake” leading to the resignation of Cameron, a fall in the value of the British currency and volatility in international financial markets.

“These short-term effects will pass, but the long-term consequences have the potential not only to redefine the United Kingdom's relationship to Europe, but to redefine the UK itself,” said Steedman, who also serves as chairman of USM's Department of Interdisciplinary Studies. “We are likely to see a new Scottish independence referendum, given that Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in Europe (as did Northern Ireland), while most of England and Wales (outside London itself) voted to leave.

“The effects on the UK economy, on trade with Europe, and on the economic and political project of the European Union itself are hard to predict. As we speak, the anti-EU right is cheering across the continent, and pushing for their own domestic referenda on membership. We could be looking at the first stage of the breakup of Britain, but we could also be looking at the first stage of the breakup of the EU itself.”

Steedman said it has been a great experience for students in his political science class to be in London watching the heated campaign unfold, learning the various arguments advanced for staying in and for leaving.

“We watched the nation mourn as a politician was murdered (MP Jo Cox) in what appeared to be an attack motivated by the issues of the campaign, and we have now witnessed a quite rare event in British politics: the resignation of a Prime Minister (Cameron) whose party won a commanding majority in a general election just a year ago, and who nominally had four years left to serve,” Steedman said. “The students have delved deeply into one key issue of the campaign, that of immigration, and we have listened as British citizens debated the issues in pubs and on the Tube, as well as in newspapers and on television.”

Steedman says he's still shocked by the vote and at the prospect his native Scotland is poised for dramatic change, and may not continue to exist in its current form. In 2014 a referendum was held giving voters the option for Scotland to leave the U.K., but a majority chose to remain. Speculation has grown that another referendum may be put forth again on the issue of an independent Scotland. 

“The students themselves have been caught up in the campaign, and have debated the issues formally as part of the class, and in conversations throughout the month,” Steedman said. “We prepare to leave for Scotland next week, and the opening of the next session of the Scottish Parliament, and it will be exciting to see how Scottish people are reacting the EU referendum result, and to the prospect of another vote on Scottish independence in the near future.”

Founded in 1976 at Southern Miss, the British Studies Program has led thousands of students to study in London each summer. Students from 16 universities are attending courses in the program this summer, with about half of the students coming from Southern Miss. The program emphasizes field trips and extensive use of guest lecturers, Davies said. Southern Miss is the lead university in a consortium of a dozen university partners in the program. Students are housed in residence halls attached to the University of Westminster in Central London.

For information on British Studies at Southern Miss and other international study abroad programs sponsored by the University, visit https://www.usm.edu/study-abroad.