On our trip to Galway this weekend, all the various programs that IES Abroad runs in Dublin came together for a weekend sightseeing in the west of Ireland. Breaking out of my little Writer's Program bubble, this trip gave me the opportunity to talk to people who enrolled in Irish universities like Trinity College or Dublin City University. My first question, automatically, was, "Have you been able to make some Irish friends then?"
I was surprised to find that the common answer was, "It's more difficult than you'd think."
It's not that the Irish aren't friendly. In fact, most of the Irish people I've spoken to have been incredibly kind, genuinely interested in who I am and where I'm from. That being said, many of the programs in Dublin place us in classes with fellow Americans, giving us a link to Irish professors but not other students. Even those who study alongside Irish students in universities have admitted that making true connections with locals takes effort.
Although friendships may take longer to build, interacting with locals in Ireland is surprisingly easy. Over the past few weeks, I've gathered a few tips for people studying abroad who, whatever city or program they may be in, would like to expand their experience by communicating with locals.
1. Go to community events.
One of my missions in coming to Ireland was to attend a different church every Sunday. In my third week in Dublin, I found a church that most reminded me of home, a contemporary church on Thomas Street called Saint Catherine's. I went to the service alone, fully expecting to sit in the back in solitude. A few minutes after I arrived, a woman slid into the row beside me and immediately stuck her hand out to introduce herself.
We talked for about half an hour, with her asking me where I was from in the States, me asking her about her hometown in Ireland, her giving me travel recommendations, me telling her cultural differences I had noticed in my short time in Dublin. The conversation evolved into a deeper talk about religion and the way it is (or isn't) practiced in Ireland.
This talk was one of my best experiences in Dublin so far. This woman exemplified the kindness and genuine interest that I had heard of from the Irish people. Though I met this woman at church, this kind of experience could happen at any sort of community event—perhaps a sports game, a club at an Irish university, a performance at a local pub. People only attend events when they're passionate about what the event is for; therefore, you already have something in common with anyone you meet.
Within this same vein, another way to meet more local people is through volunteering. Several of the programs in Dublin offer a service learning course, which involves four hours per week of volunteer service in the city. Since this particular class is based largely on education, I volunteer to help out at an after-school homework club for primary school students. This way, I work with a mix of the children who bring in their homework and the adults who supervise them.
Though I've only been volunteering for a few weeks, the opportunity has already brought me such joy. This course gave me the chance to not only meet local people but build relationships with them, and it brightens my day when the kids walk in and remember my name, tug on my shirt sleeve to ask for help, run up to me and beg me to tie their shoe so they can resume playing rugby outside.
Though not every program has a service learning course, there are still ample opportunities to volunteer at local festivals, events, or community programs that interest you. The best way to become part of a community is showing people you're interested in helping that community flourish.
3. Become a regular.
Part of becoming comfortable in a new environment is finding a niche. During my second week of classes, I stumbled upon what would become not only my favorite café but one of my favorite locations in Dublin.
The Dubray Bookstore on Grafton Street proved to be perfect not only for studying between classes but for relaxing after a long day, surrounded by the comfort of bookshelves and the smell of coffee. I gush about this place to everyone I know, and I tend to go there whenever I have time to spare, which usually means two or three times a week. Whether it's a quick stop in to browse some books or a homework session that lasts for hours, I try to be in the café as often as possible, because somehow it feels like a little slice of home.
Becoming a regular customer at this café has not yet led me to relationships with locals, but it has set me on a good start. I have begun to recognize the staff at the store, and I believe they recognize me, too. The other day when I approached the counter at the café, the man working there began to pull out a red velvet cupcake, my regular order before I even had the chance to ask for one. This is another stepping stone into meeting local people: becoming familiar.
Wherever you may study abroad, an important part of cultural immersion is to interact with the people around you. Talking to locals is not only the best way to get directions, travel advice, or even food recommendations, but it is also the best way to hear new perspectives on current events, learn more about the surrounding culture, and discover the spirit of the country's people. Meeting locals takes initiative, but it is an experience well worth your while that will enrich your cultural experience abroad.