Studying abroad was something that came out of nowhere and surprised me with a life-changing experience. I had not premeditated the idea for very long before an opportunity to travel to Belfast, Northern Ireland arrived on my doorstep. With only two weeks to gather the necessary application requirements, I dove in headfirst and made this adventure a top priority. I maneuvered the application process and anxiously awaited the email that told me I had been accepted into the program. Still, though, when that acceptance email came, the reality of this trip had not yet hit me. Fall semester 2013 found me anticipating a semester abroad that I could not even fathom before I stepped off the plane in Northern Ireland, still part of the United Kingdom.
Part of me was afraid, of course, because I only knew one person who would be joining me on this trip. But most of all I was excited for an opportunity for personal, social, and academic growth. I met some really cool people right off the bat, and the Northern Irish natives really helped make this new city feel like home. My memories of the first few days are still a bit hazy, thanks to jet-lag, but I was left with an overwhelming feeling of welcome.
Unlike a lot of my friends who have studied abroad or plan to, my goal for the trip was to live in Belfast. I wasn’t concerned with traveling Europe every weekend or checking off as many things of my bucket list as I could. What I wanted to do was understand what life was like for someone who had grown up in Belfast. I was hoping to gain a better understanding of the social, political, and religious climate and experience the aftermath of some of the history of the place.
With this approach to my experience, I was able to get the most out of Belfast as a city, as well as the surrounding areas. I visited Galway once with my parents, and Dublin and the North Coast twice. These experiences were incredible. The people were friendly, the scenery was breathtaking, and the adventure was irreplaceable, even if I did feel quite a bit of nausea traveling on a different side of the road!
I created a life for myself in Belfast, eating at least one Ulster Fry (huge Irish breakfast) a week and “beans on toast” (like the Northern Irish college kid’s ramen) for many of my meals. I got close with locals and created memories I will cherish forever. I was also able to further my education in a system that was very different from the one in which I grew up.
Stranmillis University College (the Education College of Queen’s University) took me in and treated me as a Northern Irish student. The expectations were the same, though some of the guidance was differentiated for me. The content was challenging, but what was even more challenging was the cultural diversity I felt being the only American sitting in the classroom. It was quite the experience for me, and one that I will apply to my future teaching. I was also able to do a placement (like a practicum) in a P1 classroom (students were 4-5 years old). I learned so much from this experience, and I adored every opportunity to travel to the school and learn alongside the kids.
Overall, my study abroad experience challenged my perceptions of the world, education, and myself. I grew personally, socially, and academically, and would not trade these lessons and experiences for anything.
For more than one reason, leaving Belfast broke my heart. But I value my education here at Drake, and I will honor the lessons I learned across the pond. Perhaps someday I will head back to Ireland, but for now I will be content with the notion that I “borrowed” Belfast. It’s time to make the most out of home.