When I agreed to join the team of faculty from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi who would develop and teach in a study abroad program in Scotland, I thought I already understood the value of international education. For six beautiful, challenging, and wonderfully rewarding weeks, I was constantly reminded that I had completely underestimated that value. My immediate impulse as I mentally prepared to return home after this experience was to write a love letter to Scotland and its people—a note of gratitude and admiration for the genuine hospitality that my students, colleagues, and I received during our intensive exploration of Scottish literary culture, history, and society. But what I realized as I started writing is that this is actually a letter I have been preparing to write for over a decade.
Although I only visited Scotland for the first time in 2016 in preparation for this program, my connection to Scotland dates back to 2006. It was then that I had the incredible honor of serving as one of 35 Remembrance Scholars chosen to represent the 35 Syracuse University students who were among the 243 passengers and 16 crew members who died on December 21, 1988, when a bomb planted by Libyan terrorists exploded on Pan Am Flight 103 over the small town of Lockerbie, Scotland, where 11 people were also killed on the ground. Those 35 students were returning home after studying abroad for a semester in London. As I prepared to take 35 students from TAMU-CC to study abroad in Scotland, Lockerbie was the first thing that crossed my mind. I did not necessarily think of Lockerbie out of fear despite the very real threat of terrorism in the world today. I thought of Lockerbie because the remembrance tradition that has grown up around Pan Am 103 and the Syracuse students who lost their lives had introduced me to the risks that come with all of the rewards of international education. Now that our program has concluded and our students are all home safely, I have come to understand just how much this tradition shaped the path that ultimately led me here to this very moment of reflection as I make my own journey home from Scotland.
The remembrance tradition at Syracuse is truly special. Every year, the 35 Remembrance Scholars collectively plan a series of events on campus that are designed both to honor the lives of the students who perished and to contextualize the Pan Am 103 tragedy for the larger university community. With a student population largely born after 1988 and coming of age in an ever-changing world in which the threat of domestic and global terrorism looms large, providing such context and spaces for discussion have become increasingly crucial. Although the collective goal is to remember all of the lives lost in the tragedy, each scholar chooses one of the 35 students to represent throughout the year. The reasons for these choices vary, of course, but the object is to spend time learning about the individual person—where they were from, what they studied, what their interests were, what they hoped to do after graduating from college. The magnitude and weight of the event quickly becomes not only about the total number of people who perished but about the incredible value in a single life and the ways in which the loss of that life and all of its potential can continue to resonate nearly thirty years later with a total stranger.
I chose to represent a young woman named Karen Lee Hunt from Webster, New York. My initial reasoning was simple: Karen was also an English and Textual Studies major. Over the course of the year, I learned that she was an aspiring writer with a seemingly endless sense of curiosity about the world, and, like so many students who study abroad, she recorded and reflected on that curiosity in the journal that she kept during her semester in London. The fact that she kept a journal is not in and of itself remarkable, but what is noteworthy is that Karen’s journal was among the objects recovered from the crash site. Having just kept a journal for the first time in my life while I was studying abroad in Spain the previous semester, I found myself incredibly moved by the fact that the thoughts and memories of an aspiring writer recorded on something as ephemeral as paper somehow managed to survive such a violent and traumatic event. More importantly, though, I suddenly understood the power of the act of writing for oneself.
Even at the time, this realization seemed absurdly belated for someone who was well into her studies of both English and Spanish, but it really wasn’t until I started to learn about Karen and her relationship to writing that I thought about mine in a meaningful and self-reflective way. When I set out to keep a journal at age 20, I was merely hoping to record memories from my time abroad, but looking back at what and how I wrote about those moments revealed precisely why we use writing as a tool for thinking, for reflection, for learning. It became clear to me that if there was one way I could honor Karen’s memory beyond that year’s remembrance events, it was to be a much more self-aware writer and to continue pursuing my career as a teacher who might be able to inspire others to do so as well.
It was during this same semester that I was completing my applications to doctoral programs in English and starting to think about myself as a scholar and aspiring educator. At the encouragement of my mentors, I enrolled in two graduate seminars that semester, one of which was a course on beauty and aesthetic theory with Professor Harvey Teres. In the process of learning about Karen, I had become so consumed by my desire to learn more about Pan Am 103 and the remembrance tradition that I ended up writing my final paper for that course on memorials and the forms of art and beauty that emerge from moments of deep pain and loss. Why do we create memorials? Why do we turn to art to memorialize pain? Do they serve a purpose beyond the act of remembering?
As I thought about the remembrance tradition from a critical scholarly perspective, I visited the Pan Am 103 archives in the Special Collections of Bird Library at Syracuse University. I went in looking for “facts” about the event and its aftermath, but I came away with much bigger lessons about archival memory and the kinds of unexpected knowledge that archives can produce. It was my very first encounter with an archive, and it was also the first time I had given any serious thought to the question of what an archive is and why institutions like universities and libraries serve as guardians of materials that would otherwise be scattered ephemera or individual collections of personal effects and documents.
The Karen Lee Hunt family collection, which included her journal, would not be donated to the university’s archives until 2009, but I did come across one particular item already in the archives that taught me about chance encounters with the past. The archive included a recording of “A Song for Karen,” a song composed and recorded by Englishman Richard Newbegin who had visited the Lockerbie Garden of Remembrance while he was relocating his mother to the town. Inspired by a plaque that featured Karen’s name and a hauntingly prescient poem she wrote when she was younger, he wrote the song. In a letter he sent to Karen’s parents, asking them to “accept a song from total stranger,” Newbegin explained, “I came, a complete stranger to the tragedy. I left, inexplicably, a part of it.” In this regard, the memorial garden did precisely what I still believe the primary function of memorials to be: to invite reflection and inquiry, even among those without an immediate personal connection to the memorialized event itself. In many ways, this is the position I have come to occupy as a scholar and one that I strive to foster among my students as well. After all, are we not all strangers when we read the literature of the past, especially when that past is not ours? Are we not strangers who find meaning in moments and expressions that seemingly have nothing to do with us but, in fact, provide new and often unexpected ways of knowing things about ourselves and the world around us?
After years of thinking about Lockerbie and the memorial garden that stands there today, visiting the town was certainly on my list of things I would like to do someday, and I saw it as no small coincidence that I was finally able to do so while I was leading a group of my own students on a journey that resembled that of the Syracuse students with whom I had come to feel such a powerful connection. On a warm sunny Saturday in July, I took the hour-long train ride from Edinburgh to Lockerbie and was probably one of five people to disembark in the tiny town. As I passed through Main Street and followed the road signs about a mile down the road to the Garden of Remembrance, I wondered how many other people had made this journey and why. How many family members of those lost found themselves in a place they had never heard of before the day their lives changed forever? How strange must it still be to live in Lockerbie and welcome visitors to your town for such a sad reason? The thing that has always struck me about the Pan Am 103 tragedy was that the bomb was intended to detonate over the Atlantic Ocean, but due to a flight delay, it exploded instead over the sleepy little town of Lockerbie, forging a tragic but beautiful connection between the U.S. and Scotland, and on a more local level, a friendship between Lockerbie and Syracuse University, who hosts two graduates of Lockerbie Academy every year as part of the long tradition of remembrance and scholarly exchange.
After stopping by the visitors’ center, I walked through Dryfesdale Cemetery to the Garden of Remembrance and Lockerbie Air Disaster Memorial. I had seen it in photos, of course, but I was truly not prepared for the effect it would have on me. Seeing all 270 names listed on the memorial made me realize that the 35 Syracuse students ultimately made up a small fraction of the lives lost that day, but as I had been watching my own students grow and learn during their study abroad experience, I wept for the loss of these young adults who would have returned home with so much knowledge and so many beautiful new ways of looking at the world and understanding their place in it.
Study abroad is still very much in its nascent stages at TAMU-CC, and for many of the students on this trip, this was the first time they had traveled outside the country, or even outside of the state of Texas. To be sure, such an opportunity is a rare privilege, but it is one that came with hard work and sacrifice on the part of these students and their families. I will readily admit that when I entered Syracuse University as a freshman, there was never a question about whether or not I would study abroad, but a question of where. At a regional public institution in South Texas, study abroad is quite simply not on the radar of most students or considered to be within the realm of possibility. The challenge, then, was to create a program that made practical sense for our students’ degree plans and was within reach for learners of all ages who have jobs, families, and other responsibilities at home. With so much risk already built into the decision to study abroad, the rewards of this program were unlike anything else I have ever experienced as an educator.
There are many clichés about study abroad and its transformative effects. Having now been on both sides of the experience as student and as a professor, I can confirm that they are largely true, and while the kinds of transformation that happen in these programs are in many ways unlike what is possible in the traditional classroom, the most important lesson that I have taken away from the experience is that the learning outcomes are, in fact, extremely concentrated versions of the outcomes we should strive to achieve on our home campuses. In this way, I consider my experience in Scotland both a reminder and a call to action. We must continue to be creative about how we ask our students to engage with the subjects we teach. We must teach them how to ask questions, how to talk to people, how to take risks, how to engage in and create cultural experiences, and most importantly, how to establish productive relationships between what they learn in the classroom and the many communities to which they belong, even when building that relationship is difficult or uncomfortable.
Study abroad is indeed a wonderful opportunity, and I firmly believe that we should try harder to make it happen for more students, but what we can do, starting now, is to take those lessons about far-away places and use them to make real changes at home. If spending an extended period of time away from the U.S. and looking in from the outside at this particularly fraught moment in our country has made one thing abundantly clear, it is this: we have quite a lot of work to do, and I happen to know 35 wonderful young people who have just returned home with the skills and energy to lead the way.