UK Erasmus Exchanges are the Latest Victim of Brexit

Brexit is in the news again, after months of being pushed aside by COVID-19. As of tomorrow, the UK is officially, for real this time, out of the European Union. The government has finally reached an agreement with the EU, and while we don’t fully know the implications of leaving, there was one bit of news that has special relevance for exchange diplomacy–the UK is leaving Erasmus+, the EU’s educational exchange programme. Founded in 1987, the programme has had over 10 million participants, across 4,000 institutions in 37 countries.

Despite the fact that we’ve all known Brexit was coming since 24 June 2016, this news was still a bit of a shock. As recently as this year, Boris Johnson was saying that international educational exchanges would be maintained and that Brexit wouldn’t interfere with Erasmus. But like many other aspects of leaving the European Union, this hasn’t quite turned out the way anyone expected.

Young people are obviously the hardest hit by the move, and that’s particularly unfair because today’s undergraduates were too young to vote in 2016. The much-cited “youth vote” (who are now 22-28, 4 years on) went overwhelmingly for remain in the EU referendum. It also has bigger impacts though, beyond just taking funding away from students who wanted to go abroad. Erasmus+ had opportunities for lecturers and researchers, for working abroad, for teacher training, for short-term exchanges–it was a comprehensive programme with a lot to offer the UK generally.

It’s not only going to impact people who wanted to go abroad themselves, either. As The New York Times points out, this move damages our universities and UK soft power, too.

The withdrawal is also a blow for Britain’s vaunted universities, a powerful symbol of its soft power in Europe and around the world, and an important source of income for the country. Britain remains second only to the United States as a destination for international students, but leaving Erasmus could deter many E.U. students who might have used the program as a pathway to a British education.

While this may not affect renowned institutions like Oxford or Cambridge, scores of lesser-known universities could suffer a blow.

Elian Peltier, Britain Mourns a Cherished Education Program Ended by Brexit, New York Times, 29 December 2020

The announcement of the UK’s “Brexiting” Erasmus+ came with the promise of a new funding scheme for exchanges, named after Alan Turing. The scheme is for UK students only (not lecturers/researchers or foreign participants like Erasmus+), and includes destination countries outside of Europe. It’s proposed to start in September 2021, and on a much smaller scale than Erasmus+ with just 35,000 participants.

In some ways, Brexit feels like old news–it was all that was talked about until the pandemic happened, all we heard about during Theresa May’s tenure, and all Boris Johnson campaigned on in the last election. But now that it’s happening, (again), and we’re seeing lorry drivers miss Christmas with their families in queues in Kent, and seeing young people lose funding to study abroad during a time when, to be honest, school and university experiences have been the worst ever, it all feels pretty miserable. I don’t know many people who voted to leave in 2016, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t vote for this.

What I’m Reading: Self-Compassion by Dr. Kristin Neff

I’m not even finished reading this book, but I’ve found it really helpful and wanted to share it now because I know it’s such a difficult time of year for so many people.

I found Kristin Neff’s work through another favourite author, Brené Brown. In The Gifts of Imperfection, which could be the topic of at least 10 blog posts (maybe a project for next year?), Brown directs her readers to Kristin Neff’s website for a Self-Compassion Test. I took it when I was reading Brown’s book, and my results were so low and sad, I immediately ordered Neff’s book.

Self-compassion is basically treating yourself with the same kind of compassion that you would treat other people. One of the early practical exercises in the book is to write a letter to yourself as if you were talking to a friend. Objectively, I can recognise that I would never be as critical or judgmental towards a friend as I am towards myself, but the letter exercise really did shift something in my perspective. I beat myself up so much about my career failures–my self-talk goes something like this: “I’m 35 and I’ve never had a full-time job. I apply to jobs and don’t even get shortlisted. My CV is apparently not marketable and nobody wants to hire me. Nobody thinks I have anything to contribute. I’ve wasted my entire adult life in grad school accumulating massive debts that I can never repay because I don’t have any marketable skills or experience.”

Now, if a friend came to me with news about getting yet another job rejection e-mail, I would not even think any of these things–much less say them out loud! I would say comforting things, tell them I’m sorry to hear it, remind them how lousy the job market is right now, buy them a coffee, remind them of all of the good things they have going on in their life, etc. I would be compassionate.

Before reading The Gifts of Imperfection, I wouldn’t have considered myself a perfectionist, but I actually am–it’s less about being “Type A” and more about fearing judgment and linking self-worth to accomplishments, which I 100% do. This past year of being unemployed has forced me to work through my perfectionism, because being unemployed is the most imperfect thing in my view. I would be more compassionate towards people with drug addiction, failed relationships, etc. than I would to myself and my situation. Getting a PhD and failing to get a job feels shameful. And I’m sharing this because as Brené Brown tells us, shame cannot survive being spoken.

Still working through things and trying to be more self-compassionate, but it feels good to have Neff’s tools as we go into the new year.

Thanksgiving in Lockdown: Advice from Abroad

For most Americans, Thanksgiving is going to be different this year –and PSA: if it’s not going to be different, maybe you should cancel your plans and make it different! Canada’s early Thanksgiving resulted in a big spike of COVID-19 cases–Americans should look at this example and opt to stay home (and Brits should learn from it re: Christmas gatherings, too, but Boris is trying to figure out a way to “save Christmas”–we shall see).

Source: Time

Airline travel figures are about half of what they were the weekend before Thanksgiving last year, so even though headlines (rightly) decry “Millions of Americans Traveling for Thanksgiving, Ignoring CDC advice“, it’s good to see that millions are also staying home and following CDC advice. The Macy’s Parade is going to be downsized to one block and only televised performances, with no spectators. Thanksgiving day football is still going ahead somehow–3 NFL games, yet we can’t actually meet up in person…

I’ve spent 12 out of the last 14 Thanksgivings in the UK–sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, sometimes just with my husband, and now with our kids (it’s Paul’s first Thanksgiving!). I know what it’s like to have a weird Thanksgiving, to miss home and friends and family, to miss certain foods you can’t get hold of, to miss the Macy’s Parade (the time difference means I’ve often watched previous years’ parades on YouTube while cooking!). These experiences have given me some brilliant coping skills that I want to share as some of you go through a weird Thanksgiving for the first time:

Modify your menu!

The best part about a scaled-down Thanksgiving is that you can make only what you want–no more, no less. Growing up, our Thanksgiving table was loaded with so much amazing food–enough to feed our whole extended family and still provide leftovers for weeks. When I started cooking Thanksgiving abroad, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to recreate that same menu. If something felt like more work than it was worth (yeast rolls from scratch), I could use store bought–or simply cut them out altogether! I don’t have them any more, and I really haven’t missed them.

This weird Thanksgiving is also an opportunity to try a new recipe–something you probably wouldn’t risk if you were feeding a big crowd. If you’re bored with mashed potatoes, there are a million other ways to prepare them. You can even leave them out entirely–I stopped making mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving because they’re not really special when you live in ‘pie & mash’ country. Growing up, I was not a fan of the marshmallow-topped sweet potato/yam/”hot dish”, so I don’t make that. I make sweet potatoes with a Paula Deen recipe that doesn’t have marshmallows but does include butter, brown sugar, and Jack Daniels. This author is making an all-side-dishes feast that sounds fabulous. Embrace the freedom to modify your menu!

You can make a meal for whatever dietary needs you have–gluten free, dairy free, vegan, nut free, etc. For some people, this might be the first Thanksgiving where they can finally relax and not have to worry about explaining their dietary requirements and fielding jokes about being an awkward dinner guest. For a vegan/vegetarian main dish option, I love a good chestnut-mushroom pie. This version is vegan, while this one has Gruyere cheese so it’s just vegetarian, not vegan. Don’t waste your time doing anything sad with roasted cauliflower or tofu in the shape of a turkey–Thanksgiving deserves better than that, and you deserve better than that.

For the traditional turkey eaters, I highly recommend getting a turkey crown instead of a whole turkey. It’s the breast meat, so you still get a beautiful centerpiece and the “look” of a roast turkey, without the excess of leftovers. I use Nigella’s method of brining my turkey crown and it’s always amazingly juicy and full of flavor, never dry and boring like most turkey breast. Another crucial tip is to leave it out and let the turkey come to room temperature before it goes in your preheated oven. This makes your cooking time more accurate, which reduces the risk of overcooking and drying it out. I don’t remember if I learned that one from Jamie Oliver or Paula Deen, but it’s key!

Enjoy Socially-distanced Togetherness with Video Chat and/or Texts

If Thanksgiving won’t feel like Thanksgiving without a certain loved one, there’s always video calling. I recreate cooking together by talking to my mom about making her cornbread dressing or her pie crust recipe, but you can do whatever helps you. Maybe your family always plays a board game together after Thanksgiving dinner–do it via zoom. Watch a film at the same time and text each other your inside jokes that you’d normally be saying out loud. Send each other memes! Every time a friend or family member sends me a meme, I know they were thinking of me, and it shortens the distance to laugh at the same things together.

Focus on the positives

Obviously, some people have been through hell this year, losing jobs and losing loved ones–I’m not pushing “toxic positivity” on them. But for the majority of Americans whose biggest frustration is having to wear a mask in a supermarket, I think it’s important to focus on gratitude–the actual meaning of the holiday!

There was a great Oprah quote about gratitude–if you’re breathing, be grateful that you’re breathing. And if you need a machine to breathe, be thankful that you’ve got the machine! Start with the basics and work your way up. We used to have to go around the table every year and name something we were grateful for–recreate that, and write your answers down in a diary or journal. Look back on them at times when you don’t feel like being grateful.

Feel the weirdness and do it anyway!

I know a lot of people won’t feel like celebrating this year. I’ve been there, too–in 2008 I had pizza for Thanksgiving dinner. But marking the day in some small way can help make this crazy year seem a little bit better. Maybe read Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation and think about the circumstances of its creation as an official holiday. America was even more divided then (during an actual civil war) than it is now! For a more lighthearted approach, watch a classic TV special like Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving or Garfield’s Thanksgiving, or start in on the Christmas movies–Miracle on 34th Street opens with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, making it a great choice for kicking off the holiday season on Thursday.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Little Pilgrim George at Thanksgiving 2016, one of my 2 spent in America over the past 14 years

Election Week 2020: Memes as Coping Mechanism

I was beating myself up for taking so long to write something about the election, but actually, it’s only been a week since the results were called–and Trump still hasn’t conceded, so I can’t be too far behind! Here are a few thoughts on the long election week we’ve been living in for the past 11 days:

Election night: This was my fourth US election night in the UK, and due to the time difference, we don’t really get any results until after midnight. I had originally planned to going to bed early and just watching the coverage when I was up with the baby, as he usually wakes me up around 3 am anyway. I ended up doing what I always do, and stayed up all night watching the results. I stayed up too late watching a movie and then the baby didn’t want to go to sleep, and I figured the polls would be closing soon anyway…Paul fell asleep around 1am, and George didn’t end up joining us as he’d wanted to–he slept through the night.

I knew about the “red mirage” prediction, but it was still a very concerning election night. When I gave up and went to bed after the 4am calls for the West coast, I was still vaguely confident about Biden’s chances but I was disappointed about the Senate results. I couldn’t believe Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham were re-elected–and even Susan Collins. It wasn’t the blue wave I’d hoped for, that much was already clear.

The next 3 days are a blur. I constantly checked my phone for updates and grew so tired of seeing the same electoral vote count every time I checked. On Saturday, we went for a walk and got takeaway Starbucks Christmas coffees as a little treat, and while I was taking a break from my phone, the election was finally called!

I was so relieved that it was over and that Biden had won. I don’t know how the US and the world would have faced four more years of a Trump presidency. I’m well aware of the criticisms people have of Biden & Harris, but one thing is certain–they are competent and experienced leaders.

Back in 2017, Joe Biden was interviewed on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. I remember listening to the podcast at the time and crying on my commute over his beautiful words about grief and loss. I watched it again this week (it was reposted by OWN on YouTube), and was reminded what a truly decent, empathetic person Biden is. It’s the greatest contrast with Trump–he has no sense of empathy. Narcissists can’t empathise.

My favorite part about the week has been the memes. They have been a form of self-medicating during the wait for results, offering a way to express ourselves and share our emotions with friends and family during this chaotic time.

Nevada being slow—it wouldn’t have mattered if the election hadn’t been so close! They only have 6 electoral votes!
“Stop the Count!”
So many amazing memes about the Four Seasons Total Landscaping press conference. I love that the company went with it, and every detail was just brilliant. Such a perfect moment to cap off a chaotic 4 years!
As long as he stays quiet, we can just assume this is what he’s doing. According to aides, he’s “watching even more television than usual”!

Pre-Election Anxiety

It’s the big day—the end of voting and the start of determining the results. I’m anxious for the outcome. I can’t fully trust the polls. Even if Biden wins by a landslide, Trump will contest the results and say it’s rigged. He’s already said he’s going to send lawyers in to stop the counting of ballots, which is crazy and unprecedented. I’m worried about the reaction of Trump supporters—I know they won’t be gracious in defeat or victory, and I fear for the safety of people who aren’t white, cis, straight men.

I’m worried about violence. We’ve already seen the MAGA crowd get violent many times over the past 4 years—at Charlottesville, in Portland, ambushing the Biden Harris convoy in Texas last weekend. Trump condones this behaviour—encourages it, praises it.

I’m also cautiously optimistic. Biden is unifying and people are engaged. The early voting turnout has been amazing. Young people have shown up and broken records. In Texas alone, 1.8 million more people have registered since the last election. There could be a landslide. It’s possible. I just have a hard time letting myself get excited about that possibility!

I’ve been reading about the March For Our Lives movement as part of my study on Parkland, and I was struck by this passage:

from Parkland: Birth of a Movement, Dave Cullen, 2019

Since 2016, we’ve been seeing each other as enemies, not adversaries. Sometimes, that’s for very good reasons–white supremacists are definitely enemies, rather than reasonable people you just happen to disagree with. I’ll readily admit that the tiki-torch-wielding mob in Charlottesville was evil, or at the very least, had evil intentions at that time. But in other cases, I’ve seen people treat each other as enemies when they really aren’t evil people. I hope we can get back to recognizing the difference between enemies and adversaries, between actual evil and just a dissenting viewpoint. I hope Biden, if he wins, can unify the country and get us back to acknowledging our common humanity.

Election countdown: 1 day

Wyoming is a solid red state— conservative and rural, with a total population that’s smaller than many cities. Trump carried the state in 2016 by a massive 47 points, but that translates to fewer than 120,000 votes. It’s also the home state of Vice President Dick Cheney and Representative Liz Cheney.

After the 2016 election, Wyoming was used as an example to illustrate inequalities within the electoral college system.

Wyoming has three electoral votes and a population of 586,107, while California has 55 electoral votes and 39,144,818 residents. Distributing the electoral vote evenly among each state’s residents suggests that individual votes from Wyoming carry 3.6 times more influence, or weight, than those from California.

The electoral college has taken the presidency away from the winners of the popular vote twice in just 16 years, and both were the same party—reform is long overdue.

Election countdown: 2 days

Wisconsin was consistently blue from 1988 until 2016, when Trump won by less than 1%. Along with Michigan, Wisconsin was seen as the key to Trump’s electoral college victory. It was a state that Democrats took for granted and overlooked—Hillary Clinton sent Biden there on her behalf, and she had just over half the number of campaign offices in the state that Obama had.

Biden currently has an average 8 point lead over Trump, and given the fact that Wisconsin elected a Democrat as Governor in 2018, I think it’s likely to flip back to blue this year.

Election countdown: 3 days

West Virginia is another special state for me, as it’s where my grandpa’s side of the family is from. It’s beautiful, and the people are the salt of the earth. It was the last state to get a case of covid-19, probably because so many of its communities are relatively rural and isolated, compared with the other states around it. I would call its natural beauty ‘unspoiled’ because there’s something relaxing and peaceful about it, but actually it has been spoiled—by mining and fracking. It ranks poorly on economic and health measures, much like its rust belt neighbors, and it went for Trump by 300,000 votes, a massive 41 points.

West Virginia is solidly red now, but that hasn’t always been the case. They’ve gone for Adelai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton. They’ve been fickle and have a strange habit of voting for an incumbent whom they initially rejected—voting against Eisenhower then for him, voting against Nixon then for him, voting against Reagan then for him. It doesn’t look like they’re going to turn on Trump—he’s leading by 35 points in recent polls.

My grandpa always said he voted for Democrats because poor people are better off when Democrats are in charge. That’s why West Virginia re-elected Democratic Senator Robert Byrd so many times—because he looked after them. That’s why they went for Trump—because he said the Democrats had failed to look after them, and he promised to do it better. I really do want the best for West Virginia, and I hope if Biden wins he can turn things around for them.

Election countdown: 4 days

Washington has been consistently blue since 1988, and in 2016 Hillary Clinton won by over 500,000 votes, or 16.2 points—the biggest margin of victory in Washington since 1972 (Nixon won by 18 points). Like its neighbor Oregon, Washington is an all mail-in ballot state, with further evidence of the security of postal voting.

The Lieutenant Governor race is actually a surprisingly interesting one this year. Incumbent Democratic Governor Jay Inslee is running for re-election, and will likely win—he’s leading by 15 points on average. But if Biden wins, there’s a real possibility that Inslee could be chosen for a cabinet position. In that case, the lieutenant governor (a post I’ve never paid attention to) would be the next Governor of Washington. In the primary, two Democrats were selected—Denny Heck and Marko Liias. Heck is a US Representative who decided not to run for re-election and went for this post instead. Liias is the State Senate Majority floor leader, and I’m not convinced, based on their photos, that he’s not just a younger version of his opponent:

I’ve been a Washington voter all of my adult life, and since overseas voting registration is based on your last US address, that’s unlikely to ever change (fun fact: my kids will also use my last US address when they register to vote, despite never having lived in America!). While I love Washington and I’m proud of my state, being a member of the majority party in a safe state does make you feel like your vote doesn’t matter, at least not as much as it would in a swing state. I’m just adding another drop to a blue ocean. That said, Trump held a rally in Everett in 2016, and I’ve seen people from high school with MAGA hats in their Facebook profile pics, so this is no time to get complacent. I voted weeks ago and confirmed that my ballot has been accepted. I’m not taking any chances!

Election countdown: 5 days

Virginia is a fascinating swing state. It was red from 1968 to 2004, then went blue in the past 3 elections. Even before this recent flip, presidential elections were fairly close in Virginia—almost always single digit margins. There hasn’t been a double digit margin of victory in Virginia since 1988, when Bush beat Dukakis by 20 points. Hillary Clinton won by 5 points, and Biden is currently leading by an average of 11.7 points. If the polls are correct, this would be the biggest margin of victory since 1988, and the biggest for a Democrat since 1944.

In the Senate race, Democratic incumbent Senator Mark Warner is 15 points ahead of Republican challenger Daniel Gade, so it looks like a safe Democratic hold.