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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC students in Spain experience the Catalan independence movement

kacey spain.jpg
Kacey Rigsby, a junior, took a weekend trip to Barcelona before the Catalan Independence Referendum. Photo courtesy of Rigsby.

As tensions continue in Spain over the Catalan independence movement, the 37 UNC students studying abroad in the country are still safe and benefiting from their time abroad.

Barcelona and Catalonia have seen outbreaks of violence recently as a result of Catalonia's recent independence referendum. UNC partners with IES Abroad, a third-party-run study abroad program with a site in Barcelona. Nine UNC students currently participate in the program which exists specifically to create study abroad experiences for American students.

“No one has reported wanting to come back to the United States,” said Bob Miles, associate dean for study abroad and international exchanges. “Usually in a situation like this, IES sends us updates about what is going on in the area and the circumstances of the students.”

Miles said the Study Abroad Office’s response to conflict in regions where students are studying depends largely on the situation.

Unless the U.S. Department of State advises United States citizens not to travel to a certain country, Miles said the office will not consider pulling students out of a program. No such statement has been issued regarding Catalonia.

Miles said the Study Abroad Office relies on communication with students in cases of conflict abroad.

“Our primary concern is to get them to tell us that they’re safe,” he said.

Students are encouraged to contact their parents, UNC and local resources if they require assistance of any kind. 

Olivia O'Malley, a UNC junior studying abroad in Barcelona, said her international university classes have been canceled four times because student protests shut down the university or because of safety warnings.

"Most of my teachers are really shaken up in some way by the conflict, whether it be for one side or the other, or just the fact that Spain is so divided," she said.

O'Malley said her American program has continued to hold class.

Katie Ann Otto, a UNC junior, is currently spending a semester in Sevilla. Even though Sevilla is on the opposite side of the country from Catalonia, Otto said tensions are still evident.

“The UNC Study Abroad Office and my UNC in Sevilla program directors have been really wonderful about keeping us informed about possible threats,” she said.

Otto said she received emergency updates and a warning against traveling to Catalonia before the independence referendum.

“In the days leading up to the unofficial election they held there the first weekend of October, tons of people were putting up the Spanish flags outside of their apartment windows in solidarity with the country,” she said.

Otto said she worries about how the issue will develop over time.

"I don't think a country has ever been able to declare independence peacefully,” she said.

Kacey Rigsby, a junior at UNC who is also studying abroad in Sevilla, said the UNC Study Abroad Office has been diligent about monitoring students' travel and discouraging them from going to Catalonia. 

She said many of her fellow students are not worried about the situation.

“Most people are just ready for the whole thing to be over with, however it ends,” she said.


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Anna Pogarcic

Anna Pogarcic is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel. She is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill studying journalism and history major.