Observing elections throughout Europe as human rights volunteer, Kathy Schnare ’89 lives a life in motion.
by Jeremy Gerlach
After living and journeying in more than 40 countries over the past three decades, traveling is more than a habit for Kathy Schnare ’89.
“This is an addiction,” she says.
Schnare, who majored in philosophy at Trinity, conducts a large bulk of her international travel as a volunteer for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an intergovernmental organization based in Vienna, Austria, that promotes fair elections, human rights, and freedom of the press. With OSCE, Schnare has observed elections in Lithuania, Montenegro, Armenia, Georgia, Albania, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, Russia, and most recently the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
As a OSCE regular for the past decade, Schnare joins a unique class of international volunteers.
“We’re all strange people,” Schnare says. “We’re all really well traveled, but we’re not … there to do ‘touristy’ things. We’re there for the 24-hour workdays, and we’re there for the people.”
Observing elections, as Schnare did this October in Macedonia, typically involves 8-12 days of work observing polling sites. As one of nearly 250 total OSCE volunteers in Macedonia, Schnare was placed into a four-person team that included another observer, a local driver, and an interpreter; these groups were sent off into every region of the country to visit as many polling stations as possible.
“We are only there to watch,” Schnare says. “Our organization doesn’t have any executive role beyond observing, but OSCE does comment on areas of the electoral process that need improvement and makes recommendations for future elections.”
Observation itself can be a powerful experience, Schnare says. Through OSCE, volunteers provide a “visible sign that the rest of the world cares about what is happening in each country.”
“I volunteer because it’s so very interesting to see people trying to improve their community and their country by casting a ballot,” she says. “And every trip I take changes my viewpoint on the world and my place in it.”
In Macedonia—a small, mountainous country roughly the size of Maryland—Schnare recalls seeing an “interesting mix” of ethnicities in areas around the capital, Skopje. Many of these social segments have clashed throughout Macedonia’s history, jostling for political position in municipal and national governmental bodies. Beyond politics, these citizens face other challenges, such as widespread poverty and lagging infrastructure in cities and villages that have struggled to modernize.
“Bits of the country are very, very poor,” Schnare says. “They lose a lot of their youth to emigration, as the younger people go somewhere and send money home, or to save money to come back and build a really huge house in one of these villages.”
In many villages, Schnare recalls seeing a strange juxtaposition between modern technology such as cell phones and computers and older amenities.
“There are classrooms, houses, that are still heated with wood-burning stoves,” Schnare says. “It’s hard to explain … unless you’ve seen it.”
Beyond volunteering with OSCE, Schnare has also spent decades traveling and working on her own. During these journeys, Schnare has made a point to “just slow down” and savor her travels.
After leaving Trinity, she earned her masters in history from Washington University in St. Louis in 1991, just as Eastern Europe was opening up following the collapse of the Soviet Union. As she worked her way through Slovakia and Lithuania as an English teacher from 1994 to 1996, she lived in some villages where she was the only foreigner in town.
During the 1990s, when swaths of Eastern and Western Europe reconnected for the first time in decades, Schnare says her education at Trinity was a perfect tool to help her bridge these cultural gaps.
“Studying philosophy opened up my world,” Schnare says. “Philosophy and the ancient history classes that I took at Trinity really made me want to go out and see what I could see in the world. My philosophy background made me less judgemental of what I see, and more open to seeing everything through the eyes of somebody who lives there.”
Ultimately, this approach is why Schnare defines herself as a traveler instead of a tourist.
“Tourists seem to zip through a city or a country in a very short time, see the highlights; then they’re gone,” she says. “So, I saw things, I took my time, and when I went to a new place, I traveled there for a couple weeks, minimum.”
This focus on “people over places” eventually led Schnare to a major personal discovery. In 1997, after moving from Europe to South Korea, Schnare took a trip to Thailand and met her future husband, a British chemical engineer from Newcastle, England, named William Reid.
“He was this ‘Brit’ in a bar, and we ended up traveling together for a few weeks,” Schnare says. “We moved back to the U.K. after that.”
After bouncing around the U.K. and the U.S., the pair now reside in Pennsylvania but still travel constantly.
“We’re no longer backpackers,” she explains. “But we are in that strange category of still having a backpacker’s mentality, just having enough money, now, to stay at hotels.”
This “backpacking mentality” has led Schnare to a eccentric list of places. This group includes Chernobyl—the site of an infamous 1986 nuclear disaster in Russia—the Korean Demilitarized Zone, and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, a non-contiguous enclave of Azerbaijan landlocked between Armenia, Iran, and Turkey.
Schnare says she might be at a loss for words to describe some of the incredible sights she’s seen, but she doesn’t hesitate to offer advice to future generations of Trinity travelers.
“I never studied abroad in school, and I was never that good in my Russian language classes,” Schnare says. “But even if you don’t think you have the money, or the skills, don’t let that stop you. You’d be surprised how cheaply you can travel and how much you can see, whether you are volunteering, working—however you are living abroad.”
A word of warning for those who would follow in Schnare’s steps:
“Travel is addictive,” Schnare says. “As soon as William and I knock one place off our list, we put 12 more on.”
Jeremy Gerlach is Trinity University’s brand journalist, and he took his first trip outside the U.S. to Rome, Munich, and Copenhagen in 2017. Email Jeremy at jgerlach [at] trinity.edu or find him on twitter @JT_Gerlach.