Kristen Cole – Limerick, Ireland
It was a bus ride I'll never forget - the journey from the Shannon airport to my new apartment at the University of Limerick in Ireland. It was 6 a.m. local time, but my poor, jet-lagged brain was hours behind. As I slumped against the window and stared out into the rainy morning, it dawned on me - the bus was driving on the wrong side of the road! Of course, I knew that cars drive on the opposite side of the road in Ireland and the United Kingdom, but the moment I took my first ride on the other side, the full realization of where I was and what I had chosen to do hit me. I was alone and on my way to a university where I did not know a soul, in a foreign country thousands of miles away from home. I was nervous, scared and excited beyond belief. The next five months proved to be the most challenging, exciting and rewarding time of my life, and I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. From living with five native Irish students to trying to decipher the Irish accent to climbing cliffs and mountains, my time studying abroad in Ireland was extraordinary in every sense of the word.
My first surprise came when I found out that the apartment I was living in was shared with five native Irish students. Most of the other study abroad students I met lived with at least a few Americans or other foreign exchange students. In my case, I was the foreigner. At first, it wasn't easy - my roommates had already lived together for a semester and knew each other fairly well. However, despite the occasional annoyances that came with being the ‘foreigner' in the house (my three male roommates loved to tease me about my pronunciation of Irish words and all things American!), I realized that living with Irish students was one of the best experiences I could have asked for. Sure, it might have been easier to live with other foreign students, but I didn't travel all the way to Ireland to live with Americans! It took me far outside my comfort zone, and gave me the opportunity to absorb the Irish culture.
My second surprise came from the simple act of trying to understand the Irish accent. In the last weeks before I left the United States, I became accustomed to hearing ‘Well, at least they speak English over there!' as though this meant it would be magically easier to live in Ireland. This was not the case. I adore the Irish accent, but it is by no means easy to understand an Irish person when they speak! The accent varies from town to town and county to county, and added into the mix was the slang, which mixed English and Irish words to make it even more difficult to understand. However, being around my Irish roommates helped me get used to the accents and slang more quickly, and by the end of my stay, I had no trouble understanding the melodious complexity of the Irish accent.
Some of the fondest memories I have of my time in Ireland is of the trips I took with an on-campus club at the University of Limerick called the Outdoor Pursuits Club. Despite my lack of experience in most ‘outdoor pursuits', when one of my American friends suggested we join it as a way to meet other students and see some of the beautiful Irish countryside, I agreed. Our first trip was to the Burren in County Clare, where there are miles of jagged cliffs perfect for rock climbing. The cliffs overlook the Atlantic Ocean, and the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. I didn't quite make it to the top, but I tried my hardest and did fairly well for a first-time rock climber! The second trip we took was to the Wicklow Mountains in County Wexford. The club leaders had said we'd be ‘hill-walking', which my friend and I thought would be perfectly feasible. Little did we know that what the Irish call ‘hill-walking' is in reality mountain-climbing. Five of the most physically intense hours later, I made it to the top. Looking out over the gorgeous countryside for miles around, I couldn't believe I'd actually climbed a mountain, something so far beyond my comfort zone that I hadn't even considered it before going to Ireland.
Studying abroad was the best decision I could have made in my college career. It showed me I could survive and even thrive independently in a completely new setting. It wasn't always easy but overall it was an incredibly fun semester and yielded amazing memories that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Living and studying abroad teaches you to go outside your comfort zone, and you'll be amazed at how much more there is to see and do when you are no longer confined by your own apprehensions.