Learning about the Power of Policy in Poland

Morgan Peterson ’20, an SMU Tower Scholar, is triple majoring in Political Science, International Studies with a specialization in European Studies, and Human Rights along with minoring in Public Policy and International Affairs. She was recently awarded the SMU Tower Center Marian Tower Scholarship, which she applied to study abroad in Poland. She shares about her humbling experience visiting Holocaust memorials and what it taught her about human rights.

Describe your life in the country you were in.

I was roughly in Poland for two weeks and I spent one night in Lviv, Ukraine. With the Embrey Human Rights Department, I traveled throughout Poland to sites related to the Holocaust such as concentration camps, death camps, memorials for Holocaust victims, Jewish neighborhoods, synagogues, and more. To go to these sites, I often had long bus rides which often led to conversations about history, social justice, and human rights. At a majority of sites, the group had great guides that have been giving tours to the Embrey Human Rights Holocaust Trip for years. Meeting these guides provided a great opportunity to talk about the daily life in Poland and how local communities have grappled with the consequences of the Holocaust. During the nights, I walked through Christmas markets and traversed through the old parts of the towns we visited. When walking through the various cities we were in, it was relatively easy to get around because a lot of Polish people spoke English. Polish people are also incredibly friendly and welcoming!

Why did you select this country/program for your study abroad experience?

Since coming to SMU, I had always wanted to go on the human rights trip to Poland led by Dr. Rick Halperin. As a student at SMU, the Holocaust is a consistent topic brought up in my classes; however, I had never been to a concentration camp before. To fully understand the trauma both emotional and physical that occurred during the Holocaust, I knew that I needed to go on the trip to Poland to make me a better student and human rights activist.

What was a typical day like for you?

I usually woke up around 6:30 AM to 7:00 AM. While getting ready, I would make sure my bags were packed since we often were traveling to another city. We usually did not stay in a city for more than three nights. I would also eat a big breakfast that was provided by the hotel because the itinerary for the day was usually busy. After getting on the bus, we would visit either the Jewish quarter of a city or memorials commemorating the lives of the Holocaust victims who died in that city. What followed these visits were the trips to the concentration camps which were in itself quite difficult. Each concentration camp in Poland that we visited were unique because each site had its own way of commemorating the Holocaust victims who had died there while also portraying the scale and depth of the camp’s operations. At each of the concentration camps, there was a considerable amount of time to walk around and ruminate on the events that had occurred at this site. A significant amount of introspection happened on this trip for me so after the visits to the various sites, the long bus rides provided me the opportunity to reconcile what I had just learned with what I had learned about the Holocaust in my studies. Reflection sessions that were incorporated within the itinerary of this trip provided me the opportunity to discuss with others the impact and lessons of this deeply meaningful trip. These reflections happened at night. After the reflections, my roommate and I would go explore the city we were in and enjoy some really good Polish food such as pierogis and sour rye soup.

What is one lesson you took away from your time there?

One lesson I took away from the trip to Poland is that our knowledge of the Holocaust in the United States is often superficial. Throughout my life, I have known about the Holocaust but I have not learned about it in great detail. I have noticed that my peers in school have often had basic facts taught to them about the Holocaust. However, once learning more about it, I realized there is so much we are not getting taught in our schools such as not all of the camps that the Nazis operated were concentration camps and non-Germans also worked at the camps. Once I learned the sheer number of concentration camps and death camps, I was in shock because I have never even heard of camps like Sobibor and Belzec who were notoriously known for killing hundreds of thousands of people. When learning this information, it has enabled me to educate others on the Holocaust and prompt a dialogue about it because more people should know the harsh realities of this time in history.

What was a challenge or challenges you had to overcome during this time?

One challenge was the emotional weight that I felt once learned about the mass atrocities that had happened during the Holocaust. It was emotionally trying to visualize such atrocities while also learning the trauma that occurred in the populations affected by the Holocaust. Since I was overloaded with information, it was sometimes difficult for me to process everything that I was taught which often lead to going through various stages of emotion. Also, another challenge for me was the fact that some of the places we visited were simply forgotten about except by those who lived around such sites or who had interacted with these sites during their operation. Concentration camps like Majdanek and Chemlov are left on the periphery which causes people from across the world to forget the importance of these places. By forgetting these places, this also means that people and their own unique stories are forgotten where names become blurred and a part of a larger group of hundreds of thousands of names. Grappling with this hard reality has

How has this experience influenced your goals for the future?

This trip has reaffirmed my interest in working to mitigating human rights violations that occur both in the United States and across the world. Now, I know that my career needs to be focused on making a profound impact on the lives of those who have been affected by injustice, especially with the power of sound policy. This trip has motivated me to visit more Holocaust related sites but also visit the forgotten sites where horrific injustices have occurred.

How has this experience enhanced your study of Public Policy & International Affairs (PPIA), or vice versa, how has PPIA enhanced your experience abroad?

This trip has enhanced my study of public policy and international affairs because the trip made me realize that policy can lead to the erosion of the rights of people who are deemed as “other.” By educating myself on the power of policy, I can learn how sound policy can promote the rights of everyone in a society. Through the study of PPIA, I am now given the tools to shape foreign policy in the United States so that the American people can actually mitigate the chances of another Holocaust occurring.

What is it like transitioning back into life in Dallas and at SMU?

It has been hard talking about my experience in Poland because it is hard to put into words how I felt during the trip. Some moments on this trip are simply indescribable such as being in a gas chamber at Auschwitz where so many innocents died for the sake of racial purity. In other moments, it has been easier to discuss the trip in detail because knowing the details of the trip has educated people on the Holocaust. The one thing that I have reminded people is that they need to do a trip like this because it truly changes your life for the better. I also definitely miss the beauty of Poland especially Krakow and Warsaw where these cities blended modernity with historical preservation in their architecture.

In addition to being a Highland Capital Management Tower Scholar, Morgan is a Rotunda Scholar, a Founders Scholar, and a Pre-Law Honors Student. Her current involvement at SMU includes being an SMU Admission Ambassador, Secretary for Alpha Phi Omega, along with being in Student Foundation. She was previously involved in being the Community Engagement Chair for Armstrong Commons Council and was in the organization Program Council. She is currently working on a research project centered on mapping human right sites in Dallas. Her policy interests range from revamping the Department of Veterans Affairs to improving human rights policy, especially regarding the issue of human trafficking. After graduation, she hopes to attend law school and pursue a career in shaping human rights policy.