Getting to Know Europe in the City of Bridges

Skyline of downtown Pittsburgh

The first-floor gallery of the University of Pittsburgh’s largest academic building thrummed with the sounds of vendors and visitors, folk dancers and Finnish instruments, children crafting under the direction of local arts organizations, and cans of whipped cream expelling the fluffy white topper to an already mountainous waffle concoction. It was noon on April 8th and EuroFest 2017 was off to a great start.

The second annual festival featuring “all things Europe in the ‘Burgh” welcomed an estimated 1,300 students and community members from around Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania this year. Our Center, the European Studies Center at the University of Pittsburgh, organized the event and we were thrilled with the growth we had seen in just two short years. We could not have gotten Pittsburgh’s EuroFest off the ground without the help of a Getting to Know Europe (GTKE) grant from the Delegation of the European Union to the United States.

Founded at Pitt in 1984 as the Center for West European Studies (CWES) and later renamed after earning the distinction of a Jean Monnet European Union Center of Excellence, the European Studies Center has a long tradition of advancing the field of EU studies in the United States. The core mission of the ESC is to promote excellence in teaching and learning about Europe and the European Union at the University of Pittsburgh and to be a resource for European studies throughout our region and throughout the U.S. The Center offers undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to enroll in certificate programs in West European Studies, European Union Studies, and Transatlantic Studies.

Related to this core mission, the ESC also promotes teaching and learning about Europe and European languages to constituencies beyond the traditional student and faculty groups represented at the University. From Model EU simulations for high school students to faculty development workshops for K-12 French teachers, as well as through a variety of other long-standing, successful programming, the ESC has promoted European and European Union studies to elementary and secondary school students and educators.

With funding from GTKE, the University of Pittsburgh organizes a summer Brussels Study Tour for students and educators. For one week in the summer, we lead a group of undergraduate students, K-12 teachers, and faculty members from community college or Title III-eligible colleges or universities to the administrative heart of the European Union: Brussels, Belgium. The first of these trips last year brought 31 students and educators together from Washington, California, Wisconsin, Utah, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.

Over the course of the week, the group visited the three main institutions of the EU: the Commission, the Parliament, and the Council. We also met with think tanks and the U.S. Mission to the EU. The K-12 teachers toured a European School, sitting in on chemistry, history, and math classes taught in Spanish, German, English, and French and exchanging best practices with teachers at the school. The timing of the trip was extraordinary, as on the penultimate day of the tour, voters in the UK chose to leave the EU by a narrow margin. Having spent the week up close and personal with the EU, the impact of the Brexit referendum was felt immediately. A sober group gathered for breakfast that morning. They were soon buzzing with speculation about what it all would mean, how did this happen, what would happen next? They then took this deeply personal connection to what might otherwise have been a distant and remote international news story back with them to their classrooms in rural North Carolina, urban Pittsburgh, the Intermountain West, and suburban California. It is a striking example of the importance of the kinds of high impact, immersive experiences that GTKE has made possible.

Which brings us back to EuroFest.

By concentrating community groups, artisans, and food vendors into a shared space on a Saturday in April or May, we provide a place that can be imagined as Europe in Pittsburgh. It offers people a chance to learn about European cultures through performances on the main stage or booths manned by representatives of European heritage communities in Pittsburgh.

Community organizations and University departments that encourage the teaching of European languages (from French to Gaelic; from Croatian to Finnish) provide information and mini-language lessons. Attendees can sample pierogis, Irish soda bread, waffles, Transylvanian chimney cakes, Haribo gummy bears, and gyros, then take their children to a story time read in Spanish. Posvar Hall on Pitt’s campus, normally a stark example of Brutalist architecture, is festooned in lights and draped with colorful banners depicting the flags of all twenty-eight EU member states. The hall is filled with the music accompanying Irish or Serbian or traditional French dancers. And people become immersed for the day in an environment that encourages exploration and learning. Our Center hosts a booth where anyone can test their knowledge of EU trivia and students can learn more about enrolling in an EU certificate.

Food trucks parked outside Posvar Hall and in front of Pitt’s iconic building, the Cathedral of Learning (background) offered crêpes, pierogies, gyros, and more!

Perhaps my favorite part of the event, though (besides the crêpes, of course), is the presentation of awards from the Center’s EuroFest Contest. This year, the contest asked students — from kindergartners to high school seniors — to reflect on the accomplishments made and challenges facing the EU on its 60th anniversary. Elementary schools students were asked to research the culture or geography of one region or member state of the EU, the euro, or any other topic related to the EU. Middle and high school students had to consider the EU at 60 and its commitment to its motto “United in Diversity,” as evidenced by some policy issue, or the Institutions, cultures, customs, and languages of the EU. The winners and their families were then invited to EuroFest for the announcement and presentation of their prizes. Take a look at this year’s winners on the ESC’s web page.

(Top left) First Place Grade 3–5, Darren K.Grades | (Top right) First Place Grade K-2, Evan D. | (Bottom left) First Place Grade 6–8, Hudson M. | (Bottom right) First Place Grade 9–12, London W. See all winners here.

In honor of the 60th Anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, moreover, the ESC will present the EU Delegation in Washington, D.C. with the winning entries, so that they may be displayed for officials and visitors to see. After all, the GTKE project was given the title “Building Bridges” as an acknowledgement of one of our city’s nicknames (the City of Bridges) and because our goal was to encourage a better understanding of connections between Europe and the U.S. That is the work the Delegation does every day. What better way to honor that work and those connections?

We also want to say thanks. GTKE funding provided valuable seed money for initiatives that we hope to continue well beyond the period of the grant. Teachers who participate in the Brussels Study Tour return to their classrooms with new lesson plans and a store of personal observations and anecdotes. They will bring the EU — its accomplishments and the challenges that it faces — alive for their students for years to come.

Visitors to the festival leave, we hope, with a better understanding of the manifold ways that Europeans have influenced and continue to affect our city. With grant funds, we got these projects started. Now that we have proven their effectiveness at reaching more people than ever, we hope to keep offering them for years to come. As I wrote earlier, the core mission of the ESC is to promote excellence in teaching and learning about Europe and the European Union at the University of Pittsburgh and to be a resource for European studies in our region and throughout the U.S. If we get to have fun and eat crêpes while fulfilling that mission, then all the better.


To learn more about the programming of the ESC at Pitt, visit the ESC website or follow us on Facebook or Twitter. To learn more about the European Union GTKE grant program, click here.