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Jackie Mirandola Mullen | Sunday, August 30, 2009

Here I stand. Or rather, totter. Teetering on the outer film of the Notre Dame bubble, not sure whether to penetrate and join or remain isolated and observe. I’m left still balancing, bereft of a firm decision. Rather, the perennial question lingers: Is it better to be an insider or an outsider?

This June, I returned from Notre Dame’s year-long study abroad program in Innsbruck, Austria. Those of you who read this column last year heard a little about how beautiful and mountainous and European it all was. In case you missed the column: It was all very beautiful and mountainous and European. There, that’s my quick plug for Innsbruck. It’s a great city, probably one of the most naturally stunning places I have ever seen; check it out.

Notre Dame ranks third nationally in study abroad participation among its undergraduates, with over 50 percent of students studying in a foreign country at some point in their time enrolled here. That means more than half of us cope with the mixed emotions of return.

Returning isn’t always the piece of cake I thought it would be (although I do have dozens of Health Services pamphlets warning me of culture shock), but it’s tough for different reasons than I had assumed. Suddenly at Notre Dame, I’m a member of a stable community again, no longer adhering to a peripatetic lifestyle in which my “home” base was still somewhat shaky, still foreign and unsure.

Although being an outsider, thrown off my game in a different cultural context, made me want to feel back on top of it, returning home conversely reminds me of the benefits of that uncertainty. When you are unsure, you are open to alternatives, you observe and try to decide the best course, you take time before thundering headlong into decisions. An increased awareness of your surroundings allows for some of the contemplative reasoning that high-speed lifestyles fly past.

The remnants of that heightened awareness sit like an intellectual conscience in my head: I find myself here trying to reject this familiar comfort – at least to a certain extent. I want to observe my surroundings and people as lucidly and attentively as I did when they were all new and unknown. I want to think about why a city is laid out like it is, where my food comes from, why I use certain words in conversation.

Yet, I still want to be an insider, a part of the system here. I want to feel on top of my game, I want to know what’s going on and have established friends and confidence that laughs at uncertainty and flows steadily into solid decisions.

Can I have both?

Politicians run into this paradox all the time. Think of Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter, campaigning as “outsiders” for a job of the ultimate insider. You can’t be president and have a clear, uninvolved, unbiased perspective on the issues in which you are necessarily involved. An outside perspective by definition means that you are not a part of the goings-on.

But even the firmly grounded Decider must have some freshness, some ability to momentarily slink out of the “system” and approach our culture and our problems with fresh, uncertain eyes.

We may not be international dignities here on campus (most of us aren’t, at least), but this lack of expertise helps us bring some valuable “outside” perspective. We can utilize our fresh eyes to re-look at the world, even – especially – from within the comfort of our Notre Dame bubble. Allowing its structure to periodically envelope us with its communal comfort allows us to take the intellectual jumps-off-of-cliffs that academics are all about. An established community provides a stable background to the instability that constant criticism creates. That community is the home that we can leap from and then return to.

You must be part of a system to understand it, but to change it, you have to step outside and observe. I don’t want to be a uniform “Domer” now that I’ve returned from Innsbruck. I want to keep my observer (small ‘o’) glasses on. But maybe sometimes when my brain needs a rest, I’ll take my observer glasses off and let the bubble soothe my weary eyes.

Jackie Mirandola Mullen is a senior History and German major. She once explained to her Austrian host parents what chipmunks are. She can be reached at jmirando@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.