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Laura Perry - 'the excitement never, never ends..."

I was fortunate enough to receive travel funding from the College of Arts & Sciences this past academic year to travel to the European Social Science History Conference, 13-16 April 2010. While attending this conference I presented a paper entitled, "GIS and History: Manufacturing, Memphis, and the Great Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878." (paper link, Conference Session H-11; all the papers from the History and Computing Section are now online).

It was a thoroughly amazing experience to be able to hear and speak with some of the most influential researchers, writers and entrepreneurs in the combined fields of Geographic Information Systems and History today. I learned a tremendous amount – and of how much I have yet to learn. This truly was the experience of a lifetime and a formational experience in the ways in which I will view the meld of both the historical and the technical aspects of what I have chosen to do with my life's pursuits. The University of Memphis had made this possible in ways I never expected, and for which I am particularly grateful.

Near the end of the conference, a sign went up in the Commons about a little-known event – and one to which few of us paid much attention at first – the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjalljokull. The explosion of news – not to mention the volcano – became enormous within about 48 hours, however, as European airspace was first partially, then totally closed. We were soon stranded, though we were told by our airline to travel to the airport as quickly as possible via train "in case" the airport opened in the morning; if it did and we missed our flight we would be forced to rebook on a later flight at our own expense.

We took the last train from Gent and hurried into… a dead airport. Nothing moving and almost nobody there. When I asked about hotels nearby, I received an odd look and the response, “Ma’am, there are no hotels within 150km. But the Red Cross is over there.” The gentleman pointed that way. We resigned ourselves to a cot for the night – and that was our fate – but when we arrived we found smiling faces, water, food – and our fill of international reporters. We joked about it most of the night, but by the third day (including a sanity trip into Brussels proper to see the sights), it was no laughing matter; the cots hurt, the room was cold and tempers were frayed. Oddly enough, though, a couple – two pilots – walked into our lives at that moment. They were, as they laughed, “ecologically unemployed” due to the volcano, and just as stranded as we were – albeit at home – and wanted most of all to know if we would like to stay with them. I am not accustomed to going home with strangers, but a hopeful nod from my husband, Alex (MM, Scheidt School of Music, 1995), did me in – we agreed.

The Halpouters (Cédric and Alice) were amazing hosts, and kind to the last. They showed us around the area southeast of Brussels, including a lovely nature preserve, Waterloo (where Napoleon was defeated – what an amazing sight!), and some astounding meals. And, on the second to last day, they suggested we make a day trip to Paris. We were stunned that we could do that in our budget and booked two seats on a bus for VERY early in the morning the next day. We took a whirlwind tour of Paris, arrived back at midnight, and caught a flight to Amsterdam the next day.

While in Amsterdam (we had a 23 hour layover), we went to the Anne Frank House and visited many other historic spots in the old city. But, we were weary and ready to return home. I had been reading conference materials and papers and working most of the trip as well as keeping up with what else was going on, and was definitely ready to get back into my usual working routine.

The six-day-trip-that-had-turned-to-thirteen was wonderful and will always be in my heart (and my back, I suspect). I learned more than I could ever imagine and would recommend every student I meet (graduate and undergraduate alike) to take advantage of all the study abroad and conference opportunities this university has to offer. The ability to work with people from different cultures and different perspectives is invigorating and academically enriching. I would also encourage our students and faculty to continue to take advantage of ever chance they have to travel not only abroad, but within this beautiful country as well. It's a wide, wide world we have, and much to learn from it. Keep educating yourself; the excitement never, never ends.

Laura Perry
PhD History 2012 (anticipated)

Alex and Laura Perry
Laura Perry in Brugges - only a 25 minute train ride from Gent and well worth the short trip on an afternoon off.
Laura Perry at the ESSHC 2010 Conference in a U of M Tigers polo shirt!
Some of the oldest buildings in Gent along the Graslei Canal
Hogeschool Gent Bijolke - the location of the European Social Sciences History Conference, 2010.
Laura Perry in Paris - in front of Notre Dame Cathedral
Laura Perry takes a side trip to Paris while marooned in Europe due to the erupting Icelandic volcano in April 2010.
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