Chips or Fries?

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It’s been over a month now since I returned from my study abroad adventure in Ireland, and yet it feels like I was just there yesterday. School has started up again here in Tuscaloosa, but in my mind I’m still lying in fields of green in the Irish countryside.

Upon my return to the United States, my immediate reaction was to eat something that Ireland didn’t have–like southern cooking. I was excited to be back in the culture that I had known for so long and back with the people who were family to me. And that feeling carried me through all the moments when, deep down, I was missing my Irish roots. I let the nostalgia overtake me, and I delighted in the sense of belonging I felt returning to my home country.

But the excitement of finally being back in America did, of course, wear off eventually. It only took about a week for me to run through all of the TV shows I had missed, to eat the food I had been craving, and to catch up with my friends and family back home. So then, in the middle of the Mississippi heat, I was left with a keen longing for the Irish wind and the cozy wool sweaters. When I looked out at the pale grass in my front yard, I couldn’t help but dream of the bright green fields blanketing the majestic hills of the Irish countryside. The craving I had felt for fried chicken while I was abroad now paled in comparison to the craving I felt for a hearty shepherd’s pie or a hole-in-the wall pub’s fish and chips. I was experiencing reverse culture-shock in the country I had known for 20 years.

But time continues to march on, and suddenly there is distance between my study abroad experience and the present. I’m back at UA, I’ve reunited with my college friends, and I’ve hit all the red lights on University. It’s taken me a while, but the culture shock has worn off and now I’m just here. It’s the perfect time to reflect upon my experience abroad and to really consider just how much it changed me as a student and as a person.

Educationally, I have learned so much about how to adapt to new modes of study and hands-on learning. Academics can be an experience if you let them. Don’t just listen to a lecture about Irish culture; go out and hear the street music, order the brown bread flavored ice cream, and sit in the little pub on the corner on a cold and rainy night. I learned how to really engage the material in a way that challenged me intellectually but also gave me lasting memories that transcend material that falls under the often-forgotten umbrella of schoolwork.

I have also grown as a person since returning from my study abroad trip this summer, which isn’t just to say that I can now tell people I’ve been to the Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride. I learned how to be independent in a place where even the most basic foundations of living were completely different than I was accustomed to. I found out that, when pushed, I can do things that I would have never thought I could, like read Ulysses without wanting to throw the book out the window or wander around the Galway trying to find a nice crepe place without any semblance of a map. I also learned infinitely more about people than I had ever discovered before–that they’re so vastly different, that the world is a huge, scary, wonderful place full of people so intricately unique, and that, even through all the barriers of language, geography, and culture, we remain a species so deeply connected by common experience.

I think that when a person chooses to go abroad, and especially to study abroad, that person becomes an active agent of cultural connectivity. From the time you step onto foreign soil, you represent so much more than yourself. You represent a school, a town, a  state, a country, and an entire world as an ambassador of change and community. I would encourage anyone and everyone to take a leap of faith and study abroad, because that’s exactly what our world needs. It needs more people willing to step out of their comfort zones, more people willing to reach out and learn from people and cultures they don’t understand, and more people willing to do the work necessary to chisel away at any and all barriers standing in the way of cultural connectivity. Alabama provides countless outlets for this kind of positive change through their diverse list of study abroad opportunities. Mine wan only one of many, and every experience is vastly important.

So what are you waiting for?

Author: Caitlyn S

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