For the past week and a half, I have struggled with the idea of putting my study abroad experience into words. Being back in my suburban home in Cleveland, Ohio, my four and a half months in Ireland are already starting to feel like a dream. When the U. S. customs officer said "Welcome home, I'm sure you've been missed" after clearing Customs Pre-Clearance in the Dublin airport, I couldn't help but feel like I was in my own sad, melodramatic movie. I was an actress in the clichéd leaving scene where I pondered whether I was really coming home or leaving it, "insert dramatic voice over and one last glimpse at the Dublin hills here". I spent my last day in Dublin walking around the city and gazing longingly at all of the places I would miss. The gray skies added an aura of melancholy to my already distraught nature, and played right into my leaving blues. As I boarded the plane and we took off, I got my last glimpse at the beautiful greenery of Ireland, and what had become my home for four beautiful months. Keeping with the melodramatic theme, "I should live in salt for leaving you, behind" crooned by The National was blaring through my headphones as I got my last views of Ireland. 19 hours and one breakdown in the Pittsburg airport later (my flight got diverted at the last minute and we had to fly to Pittsburg instead of Cleveland, extending my travel time for several hours), I was back in Cleveland, Ohio, relegated to grappling with what it meant to be back home after the long journey I had taken.
It is in this context that I sit here today attempting to put into words what my semester in Ireland meant to me. In my very first study abroad blog post I wrote,
"With studying abroad, however, it is more like you are standing on a precipice waiting to free fall into the abyss of self discovery; waiting, to embark on an adventure, the course of which you could not possibly predict, and that you will not know until you’ve boarded your return flight home."
Reflecting back on these words, it makes me realize that while I now know what the course of that adventure was, I still cannot know all of the ways that it has affected me. I know I will never be the same after my four months in Ireland, and I know I will never be able to talk about Ireland without a sense of longing for that country which showed me so much about its people and places, but also helped me to discover so much about myself. It was on the Dublin streets that I first realized the rush of excitement I get when I'm exploring a new place by myself; that grand sense of independence that can only come from discovering when you've become lost and correcting yourself or successfully navigating to a new place. The streets of Dublin would become familiar friends, their brightly colored doors and Georgian architecture painted in my memory as where I walked to class, my favorite place to run, or the pubs my friends and I would frequent.
I think I can honestly say that I would not have been as happy studying abroad in any other place. I last minute decided to apply to the Trinity program in Dublin, considering Barcelona, Paris, and Rabat (Morocco), before settling on Ireland as my final choice. Maybe I know myself or maybe it was chance, but picking Ireland was one of the best decisions I've made. My first big takeaway from study abroad, is simply that Ireland is a place I will forever cherish and hope to one day return, maybe even again for an extended period of time. The lush fields, sweeping landscapes, and striking cliffs are all part of what make this country so aesthetically beautiful. While it really is incredible to see places like the Cliffs of Moher or the Ring of Kerry in person, what I feel I got from spending four months in Ireland was a sense of the culture. Viewing the Irish as a culture heavily centered around drinking, might at surface level be true (there really is a pub on every corner), but what I think this represents is not just the prevalence of alcohol, but the importance of camaraderie, in interacting with the barman or your neighbors. It isn't just about heading to the pub for a pint, it's about who you're heading to the pub with. The drinking culture, I think, can be viewed as a fundamentally friendly and sociable one.
Aside from what I learned about Ireland, I think what I gained from study abroad was not just a multitude of information about a variety of European places, but a deeper understanding of how I see myself and how I interact with the world around me. Studying abroad taught me the wisdom to know when I should ask for help, and the courage to be assertive enough ask. It challenged me to believe in myself and to not give up in the face of adversity. It taught me that sometimes the most special moments in life come when you least expect it, from watching the sunrise on my way to Galway, to playing the piano in Shakespeare & Company in Paris. I learned that confidence isn't just about how others perceive you, it's about how you perceive yourself.
What I think influenced me just as much or maybe more than traveling and exploring, was the people who were there to make this semester so memorable. From traveling around Europe to hiking around Dublin, I met an incredible array of people to whom I owe a great deal. It feels surreal that I spent four months with a group of people that won't be waiting for me in Rochester at the start of next semester. Making friends during study abroad is like making a second family, because if not for those people, you would be essentially alone in a foreign country. I was very lucky to meet a group of people that challenged me to explore, inquire, and consume copious amounts of food throughout Ireland and Europe.
I think, like anything, study abroad is what you make of it. It's different for everyone. Some people travel outside their countries, while some people explore within their home countries. Some people remain more independent, and others form a network of friends. What I think the most important thing study abroad taught me, is that everyday you should be challenging yourself to experience something new in the world around you. There is beauty to be found in the simplest of things, whether that be a sunset on the way home from work or the calmness of a still summer night. Life is too short not to take time to appreciate the adventure of existing and to take risks that make that adventure all the more worthwhile. For me I think study abroad wasn't about finding myself, it was about becoming confident enough to express without reservation who I already knew myself to be. It was about taking risks that lead to one incredible adventure.
There is a quote that has stuck with me since my arrival back in the states:
"You get a strange feeling when you leave a place, like you'll not only miss the people you love, but you miss the person you are at this time and place because you'll never be this way again", Azar Nafisi
I think I keep coming back to this quote because it so perfectly describes what it feels like to leave Ireland after my fourth month long journey. I will never be the same person I was in Ireland these past four months, but I carry with me the lessons I learned and the connections I've made. While my time in Ireland was fleeting, the impact it has had on me will be eternal, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to experience the liberating independence of living abroad for four months. As I took my last glimpse of Dublin on the O'Connell Street bridge the morning of my departure, the melancholy of the previous day had dissipated. What I was left with, was an overwhelming resoluteness that this would not be the last time I gazed out over the Dublin cityscape. As said by Ireland's native son, James Joyce, "My heart is quite calm now. I will go back."