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Over U of M’s Spring Break, a group of twelve students joined BLI Director Ram Mahalingam on a one-week trip to France & Belgium. Through enriching experiential learning activities abroad, students explored culture-specific labor practices and policies at the personal, organizational, and societal levels that strive to promote dignity and well-being in a global workplace. Here are some of the students' experiences, in their own words,
"Overall, I found the BLI France Peace Leadership Retreat very enriching and also very fun! As an American, one of the big things I got out of the trip was valuing multicultural perspectives and learning to question my own assumptions. For example, in the US, if an employee has a grievance against their company, they'd most likely go to court. However, in France, if an employee has a grievance against their company, they would go to their labor union representative, and they would take it up with the company because the European system assumes that an individual could never go up against an institution/company on equal footing (there is necessary power in coming together as a collective). Seeing how different systems in Europe and the US play out was enlightening and gave me a new excitement for what the future of work can be and the possibilities that are out there.
Additionally, one thing the trip showed me is the value of slowing down. Throughout the trip, we routinely had 2-3 hour long lunches/dinners (part of the French culture of eating a slow meal and talking). This was such a different change of pace from the busyness in American culture and showed me how much more enjoyable life is when you simply slow down.
Lastly, one takeaway I had from the trip is the idea of "doing good when you see the opportunity." One of my favorite activities on the trip was the IMT Migrant Issues conference and hearing firsthand from migrant activists about their work. Talking with the activists afterward on how they personally got involved with such work, I was surprised to learn that one of the activists never planned to get involved in nonprofit/migrant work: For most of his life, he was a full-time researcher, but when he saw the need to volunteer and get involved, he simply took the opportunity and ran with it. While he's now retired, for much of his life, he ran his nonprofit while maintaining a full-time day job! This just reminds me that I don't necessarily have to have my life all planned out when it comes to wanting to make an impact on my life/career. Rather, the most important thing is to care, and to care deeply and to let that yield to the opportunities to express care when presented with them."
— Alison Wei
"This trip provided me with a diverse range of opportunities to learn and explore different aspects of France, from its economic policies to its cultural heritage. One of my most significant takeaways from this trip was the knowledge imparted to me by speakers talking about worker rights and labor unions. France has a long history of worker activism, and its strong labor unions and laws protecting worker rights have contributed to the country's reputation for high standards of living. Learning about the country's labor laws and union movements was an excellent way to understand the social and economic fabric of France. The historic sites I visited, such as the Sacre Coeur and the Utopian Museum, were another important aspect of understanding France's cultural heritage. These sites offered glimpses into the country's history and provided insight into the evolution of French society over time. By visiting these sites, I was able to engage with the past and gain a deeper understanding of the present.
My experiences exploring French culture likely gave me a greater appreciation for the unique character of this beautiful country. French culture is steeped in history, art, cuisine, and philosophy, and it was mesmerizing to be immersed in this culture for a whole week."
— Rashmi Nair
"This trip to France and Belgium exposed me to whole new worlds I had never seen before. There's such a stark contrast between being told about another culture in a classroom or on the news and experiencing said culture in real time. Hearing from the locals, professors, and fellow students fostered my acquisition of knowledge about what the French and Belgian workplaces truly look like. My learning was no longer limited to the four walls of a classroom, but instead included the passing interactions, the everyday transactions, and the cultural/historical exploration. The lessons I had been taught suddenly were brought to life and able to be lived alongside my peers. My experiences from this trip will live on in my mind, for just as long as the meaningful friendships I have formed with my cohort."
— Drue Daley