Coming to the realisation that last week (18th August) marked one full year since I embarked on my American study abroad adventure was a surreal, and rather startling one. Even looking at the Newtownabbey Times and seeing the write-up surrounding myself and two other Newtownabbey-based friends and seeing the date does not aid in this regard. (It does aid in the sense of making me cringe slightly at seeing myself in a photograph. Such is life, I fear.)
I could not believe it: was it really one year since I had packed my suitcase, gathered together the mounds of important documents and waved goodbye to my parents – my country – and travelled to my host college in Iowa? Was it a year since I arrived at Coe College, my home from home for the year? Chatting to my American friends online and discussing this important red letter date with them, I eventually accepted that not only was it a year since I arrived, it marked a day to recall a year of wonderful memories and friends and to smile at my good fortune.
On the 24th June of this summer, the British Council hosted their Pre-Departure workshop for the new intake of Study USA scholarship students, who were preparing to undertake their own adventures. I was there with other students from my cohort to talk to the students, answer questions and share my experiences. I can remember how excited I felt on behalf of the new students, and even how envious I was, for they would be only starting in their year-long adventure, whereas mine was at an end. It was a bittersweet moment, but I opted to focus on the sweet and realise that I had been thoroughly spoilt, and it was my role to encourage the new cohort, and inspire them to make the most of their year.
To say that being selected to take part is quite an understatement. I had known of the programme since I was at secondary school, believing that it presented a wonderful opportunity to learn in a different educational environment, discover a new culture and meet new people. I suppose I had always been aware of the role that the USA had played in achieving the Good Friday Agreement and maintaining the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, so I desired to see the country which had helped my own through years of violence and tragedy. I eagerly awaited the day when I was eligible to apply – thus looking back, now that I was a successful applicant, I can confirm that my hopes for the programme were certainly realised.
So, what is this programme I keep waxing lyrical about, I hear you cry. Allow me to elaborate.
The ‘Study USA‘ scholarship provided by the British Council NI is a wonderful opportunity to experience life a new country and to study and grow in a new environment. The programme, which has its origins in the Peace Process and developed by the Inter-Church Committee on Northern Ireland, has recently celebrated its 20th anniversary and continues to be supported by the American and Northern Irish governments. It enables penultimate year undergraduate students from any degree discipline to study Business at an American college in order to develop business, communication and leadership skills in a new environment for implementation back in Northern Ireland. This is how I, a law student, was able to study Business. I was certainly hurled into the deep end – at least, that is how I initially felt when I looked at an Accounting textbook thicker than my spine – but I truly did relish the challenge.
Study USA enjoys a strong profile in the USA. The White House endorsed the work of the programme in promoting cross-community shared experience via a letter written by President Bill Clinton in March 1995 to the Reverend Henry Postel, a member of the Inter-Church Committee on Northern Ireland.
The programme was originally established as the Business Education Initiative, or the BEI in 1994 and quickly became successful as an innovative educational experience, providing a rich platform to exchange both culture and history from Northern Ireland and the US in and out of the classroom.
Mind you, it is not a year of partying to be fair. Students who are selected for the programme are expected to fulfil several criteria, in addition to becoming involved on campus, participate in student organisations and engage in voluntary and leadership activities. These include:
- Achieving at least a 3.0 GPA in both semesters and cumulatively at the end of the year,
- Studying 15 credits worth of Business and Finance classes per semester,
- Performing an ambassadorial role by undertaking five presentations across the year relating to Northern Ireland, e.g. on history, culture, sports, politics etc. to be signed off by the student’s International Advisor at their college,
- If possible, to acquire an internship whilst abroad,
- Completing a Personal Development Portfolio (PDP) report of 2,000 words and multimedia component for the British Council NI about the experiences, challenges and skills encountered and acquired, and
- Completing a Business project on a topic of the student’s choice for the student’s home university (a maximum of 5,000 words).
I am pleased to confirm that I satisfied all of the above criteria; I am now awaiting confirmation from my university and the British Council NI regarding the graduation from the programme.
Leaving behind my friends and family, my home, and my university studies for a year was daunting. I always knew that it would be. Yet, I also always knew that this was something I had to do.
I felt compelled to apply for this historic programme for several reasons. As previously mentioned, I had always appreciated the unique and historical relationship between the US and Northern Ireland. I knew I would be very privileged to not only represent my country but also glean an understanding of the diversity of American culture and society. (I would never have the athletic talent to represent my country at the Olympics, alas.) Furthermore, it would be extremely interesting to enhance my knowledge of American history and politics and to draw parallels with the political systems of the UK and NI. I longed to challenge myself in a new educational environment, that of liberal arts, and participating in new class debates and discussions, gleaning new points of view.
Academics aside, however, there was another reason. Understanding the historical background of the programme and its continuing relevance of issues still prevalent in NI, I wanted to witness first-hand the cultural integration and diversity of the US. I was curious to see how people from all walks of life and multiple backgrounds could come together under the banner of a shared American nationality and identity. I believed I would return home an enlightened person, having not only witnessed but also lived in a thriving and diverse community where students from a variety of backgrounds can study, live and grow together. I desired to disseminate this knowledge and my experiences through acquired leadership and communication skills, thereby making a difference to my local community. The sincere motive of the programme I believed – and continue to believe – is that of inspiring young people to adopt the teamwork and leadership skills required to end discrimination and segregation in Northern Ireland. Knowing that we should strive to promote integration and sharing, caring communities, I knew that to live in such an integrated community whilst abroad in the US would be a wonderful experience which no doubt would inspire me to promote inclusivity and integration as the norm. A shared future is the hope for my country, one which promises to heal the still-painful wounds of a bitter past.
I will never forget Coe College, my time there or the friends I made. As I type this, the new academic year is just commencing there, and I do have to keep reminding myself that I will not be a part of it.
I was warmly welcomed and accepted into the college right from the beginning, by both staff and my fellow students alike. New students and hosted students are taught that from the moment they are introduced to their new campus, they are ‘kohawks’ and that ‘kohawks fly together’. A more thriving and close community I cannot imagine. Community is simply the heart and soul of Coe campus. From classes to the caf, from the library to the PUB, there was always something to do and a place to go to work, relax and socialise. It was a friendly and caring environment, where you could greet and talk to your friends when walking to class, have a laugh over lunch at the caf, grab a coffee and a chat at the PUB and commiserate over piles of assignments with classmates in the library. There are multiple student organisations at Coe, offering the chance to meet other students who share the same interests and hobbies. As I wanted to become as immersed in student life as possible and really get the most out of my year abroad, I opted to join various organisations and groups. This allowed me to meet new people, form new friendships and have a great time being involved in exciting and engaging organisations. In addition to these student organisations, I also participated in volunteering, both on and off campus, which I enjoyed. As Coe had so kindly consented to host myself for the year, I felt it was only right to not only participate as fully as possible on campus, but also participate in voluntary leadership and service events off campus within the local community. I wanted to give back to my adopted community, and it was a a rewarding, worthwhile experience to do so. My website gives more information on the organisations and volunteering exploits I was involved in. Suffice to say, it was a busy time – but oh how I do miss it.
A key element of my student life/campus life experiences at Coe was through my involvement with Greek Life and membership of Alpha Omicron Pi (AOII). I cannot express how much my sisters and fellow Greeks on campus came to mean to me, but I can say that through them I became involved on campus and with philanthropy, volunteering and leadership.
Typing this post is surprising difficult, simply because I know that my scholarship year was one of those cliche, but true, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Even now, I can close my eyes and envisage the campus, see the places where my friends and I hung out. Furthermore, whilst I certainly hope to the contrary, it may be that I may never see many of the friends I made there again. From my roomies, the wonderfully kind and friendly girls who accepted the international student, to my classmates and peers, to my fellow Europeans and internationals and my sorority sisters – I feel blessed to have met them, to learn more about them and call them my friends. Studying abroad does more than expand your horizons and broaden your mind. It opens your heart, and your eyes, as you see more than could have dreamt you would and meet fantastic people with stories and history. Saying goodbye was hard, especially knowing that I would not be returning the following semester. I miss, and will continue to miss, my friends. Yet courtesy of Mr Zuckerberg, and good old fashioned letter-writing, I know we will still remain in touch.
Even the law student/aspiring lawyer in me was extremely fortunate, for I was able to intern at a downtown law firm close to Coe College, Viner Law Firm. Whilst I knew I would enjoy my time there and was excited to witness American practice and enhanced my knowledge and understanding of American law, I did not know how much my internship, the wonderful working environment or, most importantly, the brilliant team there would come to mean to me. Leaving the office on my final day there, just a week prior to my flight home was definitely tough, but I took comfort in the fact that my internship and the people I came to know through it ensured my study abroad experience was extremely rewarding and fulfilling. My initial concern regarding my own doctrine of ‘separation of Law degree and Business studies’ as my scholarship seemingly required fortunately proved to be unfounded. This was confirmed when I was able to undertake an internship at Viner Law Firm. It would soon become a highlight of my week as I trekked downtown to my legal home.
I simply have so many things to say about my year, and so many people to thank and so many reasons to be grateful. Should anyone reading this be contemplating a study abroad year, I cannot recommend it enough. It will challenge you, you will suffer homesickness and culture shock. But, you will have laughter, friends, love and memories galore throughout. You will return home not quite the same as you had left, with a full heart and new eyes. And what could be better than that?
If you want to find out more about my year abroad and my American adventures, why not check out my website?