I have been in Ireland for almost a month and a half now and the experience has been fantastic. While there has been some acclimating to do, namely surviving the awkward meeting people stage, adjusting to the accent (more on that later), and adapting to near perpetual rain, and not getting killed by cars that seem to be driving on the wrong side of the road (or I’m looking on the wrong side), I think overall, I’ve settled in nicely. Stranmillis University has been very helpful, with a dedicated International Office, who have taken good care of us and have provided many opportunities to explore Belfast and arrange events for us (the international students).
College classes are different here, which has taken some adjustment. First, classes are the equivalent to five credits at an American Institution, so I am only taking three courses, instead of the standard five back in the states. Additionally, while courses follow the normal lecture/discussion format I’m used to at Drake, classes meet much fewer times; two of my classes are only on Mondays, while the 3rd is 4 times a week. This set-up provides a large amount of free time and with only a single, large assignment over the semester, so it feels as if there is very little to do. Now, we are given large outside reading lists, but it is hard to motivate yourself to read, when presented with so much free time. Classes are all two-hours long, which makes concentration somewhat difficult, when you’re approaching the sixth consecutive hour of class without a break (my Monday is three classes back to back). At Drake, I normally had two or three classes a day, all between 50 and 65 minutes, broken up throughout the day. I’ve found that this model, of shorter, more frequent contact with professors and class make a much more sustainable learning environment for me.
I have just finished by 3rd week of placement at Movilla High School. Located about 20 miles from Belfast, in Newtownards, Movilla, once sustained by factory and industrial jobs, has taken hits in the last 20 or so years, as those jobs dwindle. Movilla itself is a school losing pupils, dropping from around 900 to short of 300 in 10 years, as students opt to enroll at more modern schools. Yet, while it has indeed been challenging, it has been a good experience. The students are considered to be “low-achievers” and teaching can be a problem. Most have problems with authority, and I don’t think I’ve had a day when I haven’t seen a teacher throw at least one pupil out of the classroom or assign a detention due to behavior. That being said, the kids are bright, if shy, and generally engaged and willing to learn. It feels the main difficulty is confidence, that students don’t believe in themselves. For me, it also has been difficult, since I’ve been loaned out across the school, helping in a number of different classrooms, namely English, Literature, and Geography. I am not specializing in either English or Literature, so figuring out how to teach/connect with the students within those areas has been a challenge, but a good learning experience.
Branching out, the people here are wonderful, always willing to talk and seem genuinely interested in what I, as a foreigner, have to say. I live in the Midwest back home, which holds a reputation for having very nice people, yet the Irish blow that away. They are without a doubt some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered. They are also insanely difficult to understand. I obviously knew there was an accent when I came to Ireland, but I did not anticipate the amount of difficultly I would have in understanding what they say. It is English, but the speed at which they talk transforms a conversation. The accents are also very different, depending on where you are, so going a mere twenty minutes in one direction produces an utterly different accent then what you’ve been hearing. Understanding the pupils at Movilla has been especially difficult, as they talk rapidly, making me need them to repeat their statements a number of times before I understand. Or, at times, I just need another teacher to “translate” what they said.
Overall, I am happy to say the study abroad experience has been great, with very minimal amounts of homesickness. I look forward to the next couple of months and finishing out my school placement, as well as getting some traveling done.
by Brien Behling