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CCCC instructor sees history unfold before her eyes

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Click to enlarge,  Bianka Stumpf, a Central Carolina Community College world history instructor, is pictured at the European Union parliament in Brussels, Belgium.

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Bianka Stumpf, a Central Carolina Community College world history instructor, is pictured at the European ... (more)

08.09.2016Admin, Faculty & StaffCollege & CommunityCollege General

SANFORD - For obvious reasons, historians rarely find themselves at the center of the events they examine. So you can only imagine the sense of gravity Bianka Stumpf felt as she studied at the European Union while the United Kingdom voted to secede.

Britain's referendum to exit the 28-nation European Union -- or "Brexit" as it's known in journalistic shorthand -- took place just weeks ago, in late June, but is already one of the notable historical events of our time. The 52- to 48-percent vote to leave the union immediately shook world economic markets and threatened political relationships throughout Europe and across the pond.

And Stumpf, a world history instructor at Central Carolina Community College, was there. Not merely in Brussels, home of the European Union, but studying at the economic and political organization created to foster cooperation throughout Europe. She was participating in a weeklong summer study tour designed to help American teachers and their students understand how the European Union operates and interacts with the United States and other nations around the globe.

She literally saw history unfold before her eyes.

During the day, Stumpf was one of a dozen teachers ushered through the European Parliament, Council and Commission, the partnership's three main institutions. In the European Council chamber, she sat at the desk of Slovenia Prime Minister Miro Cerar, adjacent to the space used by former United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron, who resigned from office immediately after the fateful Brexit vote. The small group met with scholars, agency directors and diplomats, who provided perspectives on European policy and answered plenty of questions about what might unfold during the historic vote just across the English Channel.

In the evenings she huddled with colleagues -- teachers specializing in anthropology, language, political science and more -- to figure out how they could share their new insight with students studying Europe and contemporary issues. Stumpf arrived in Belgium with a particular interest in the European refugee crisis and how member nations were struggling to absorb well over 1 million people fleeing persecution, war and poverty in nearby regions.

Before the Brexit vote, most thought it would be close, but Britain would stay. That's not what happened. "The day after, people were really shocked," Stumpf recalls. "We went to Bruegel, a think tank that collaborates with the EU, and the people making our presentation couldn't believe what happened. They knew right away their agenda had shifted dramatically."

Brexit wasn't her only brush with recent history. During her week in Belgium, Stumpf retreated every evening to Martin's Brussels EU Hotel. To get around town, she walked a few blocks down Boulevard Charlemagne and around the corner to catch a train at the Maelbeek metro station. The same station where the Islamic State launched a terrorist attack in March. Makeshift memorials, Stumpf said, were slowly fading, but still remained.

And then there was her journey to Paris just before traveling on to Brussels. The history teacher managed to arrive during Euro 2016, the European soccer championships that captivate much of the world, and found lodging near Place de la Republique -- site of another terror attack, where about 130 people were killed last November. "In locations like these, you can just feel what it means for terror and anxiety to exist in places we all should be able to enjoy freely," she says. "But people still open their business doors, and people still use the subway station. People persist."

Though she's been home for several weeks now, Stumpf's European study hasn't quite ended. She's eight pages deep into "Examining Four Cs of Europe's Migrant Crisis: Causes, Conditions, Cure and Care," an instructional module helping students understand European migration and its impact on global history. When she's finished, the unit will find its way into World Civilizations II next spring at Central Carolina Community College and will be available to teachers worldwide through the University of Pittsburgh's European Studies Center, which sponsored the study tour.

Scott Byington, CCCC's Dean of Arts, Sciences and Advising, is thrilled that Stumpf had a chance to experience history firsthand and explore nuances of European government and policy. Not only does that enhance her own perspective, but also it allows her to bring knowledge back for students. "This was truly an exceptional opportunity for Bianka," he says. "I have no doubt she will find creative and engaging ways of sharing this experience with her students and broadening their worldview."

That's exactly what she plans to do. Because as much as she enjoyed the experience, herself, what has motivated her most is the chance to share what she's learned with her students.

"Most important is how I was literally there, so students get to come back and not just study history, but have an opportunity to connect those events to real world experience," she says. "If you're studying the European migrant crisis or if you're studying populism and Brexit, you get to come back to class and hear what someone in the European Parliament was able to share with me, so I could share it with them."

That rare opportunity makes history come alive and helps students better understand their world. And helps them to realize that distant events they see recounted on television or splashed across the Internet are happening in a real place to real people.

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