#StudyAbroadBecause A Global Perspective Is A Better Perspective

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Caroline Macomber is a nomadic travel writer working on both Freakinflyers.com and Travelisfree.com with her husband. Together, they use frequent flyer miles and hotel points to live in hotels all over the world. All the while, they track all expenses to see exactly how useful miles and points can be in making travel more possible and affordable. She studied abroad in Northern Ireland.

Caroline Macomber in Ireland: #StudyAbroadBecause A Global Perspective Is A Better Perspective

What motivated your decision to go abroad? How/why did you choose where to go?

From the day I started University, I knew I wanted to do the Northern Ireland study abroad semester. In fact, I had chosen Bluffton University because of its study abroad program in Northern Ireland- focused on Peace and Conflict Studies. Peace and conflict studies fascinated me very much, but at the time I was probably more motivated by the beautiful folk music and enchanting folklore of Ireland. I was a violin player and had fallen in love with Irish folk music. The experience was so special that when I heard the University was trying to offer study abroad opportunities for student teaching, I was determined to visit a second time for a second semester abroad as a senior for my student teaching in Art. 

Caroline Macomber in Ireland: #StudyAbroadBecause A Global Perspective Is A Better Perspective

What was your experience like? What is your favorite memory? What were some challenges you observed?

Both semesters were incredible experiences and I felt so connected to Derry by the time I left. They were very different experiences, however. During the first study abroad, we spent the first half of the semester taking classes related to Northern Ireland's history, its complex conflict, and learning about conflict resolution practices. The second half of the semester was spent in an internship. Mine was with Foyle Newpin, a center that provided classes and guidance for new mothers. We also had small trips throughout the semester, some of them organized by the program and some of them pioneered on our own. For instance, we spent a week in Dublin, and we visited political leaders in Belfast, ancient landmarks, and cultural festivals.

I have very special memories from this first semester, especially of the hiking trips my twin sister and I would enjoy with a retired teacher we had befriended in the community. He had a passion for hiking in his beautiful country, and for sharing this with guests. We spent many weekends driving all over Northern Ireland for the sake of a good hike. On one such hike, we had to trek across a marshy foothill before ascending up the gravelly side of a mountain. The trek, though muddy and cold, was all worth it for the beautiful view at the top. We could see the whole valley below and as we gazed upon it, our friend opened up his thermos and poured a cup of tea for each of us. It felt like the heart of Northern Ireland was manifest in that warm cup and the view around us.

Caroline Macomber in Ireland: #StudyAbroadBecause A Global Perspective Is A Better Perspective

The semester had challenges, though, too. To be quite honest, my boyfriend and I broke up halfway through the semester, unable to handle the long distance strain. Break ups are just a part of life. But it was hard to handle that so far away from my usual supporters- my parents and my University friends. It was massively helpful that my twin sister was my roommate during that study abroad. I'll never forget that the morning after my break-up, she took the bus downtown and bought the most decadent french toast toppings she could find and treated me to breakfast. I might even say, in hindsight, the breakup was worth it for the french toast! :)

The second semester abroad, (the student-teaching study abroad) was much more focused, though much less organized. I was the very first student participating in my University's brand new, experimental student-teaching semester abroad and because of this, there were quirks and hurdles about the process. My classrooms didn't even know I was coming, and in fact, I hadn't gotten the green light for the program until shortly before. Ultimately, it was very exciting to be part of something experimental and new, even if it was also challenging at times. Unlike the first study abroad, I spent the whole semester in the classroom, either observing or teaching. I participated in the Dublin visit with the other ordinary semester-abroad students, but otherwise did not go on the excursions I had before. It was much more like living somewhere as opposed to touring there. I gained a lot from the focus, and felt even more connected to and aware of the intricate context of Northern Ireland's conflict. The school I taught in was one of the few "integrated" schools in Northern Ireland. This means that their student body included both Catholic and Protestant students, as well as students of many different abilities. This is against the norm in Northern Ireland. 

I helped facilitate an after school discussion group called "Hands for a Bridge." The focus of the group was to tackle tough topics of conflict and divide in the community. One of my favorite memories from this semester was when this group of students turned the discussion group into a Thanksgiving party for me on Thanksgiving day. Different students had brought different snacks to share, and of course there was turkey.   

Caroline Macomber in Ireland: #StudyAbroadBecause A Global Perspective Is A Better Perspective

What skills did you develop from your experience? Do you feel changed from your experience abroad? 

Maybe the biggest lesson I took away from my study abroad semesters was this: it is incredibly empowering to realize that you can make a new place your home. The same place that feels strange and unfamiliar can eventually feel comfortable after enough time and exploration. This dismantles the notion that you belong some places and not others. As soon as you dismantle that notion, you are more powerful for it. It's hard to frame that lesson as a "skill", but I think it was the most impactful change that my studies abroad had on me. In a sense, I grew more independent and adaptable during that semester.

Caroline Macomber in Ireland: #StudyAbroadBecause A Global Perspective Is A Better Perspective

Has your experience helped you get to where you are today? If so, how? 

I come from a small, tight-knit community. Many people never leave. I don't know if I would have found the courage to become a nomad if I hadn't learned what it was like to make myself at home in a foreign place. 

#StudyAbroadBecause A Global Perspective Is A Better Perspective

What advice would you share with other students who are thinking of going abroad? 

If you don't feel like you can afford the programs offered by your University, you can manufacture a travel abroad experience of your own. For example, Corrymeela is a retreat center in Northern Ireland that hosted our study-abroad program for the beginning and ending weeks of our semester. But the retreat center accepts volunteers all the time from all over the world for weekend commitments, 3 month commitments, or year long commitments. It can potentially be cheaper doing a study abroad this way, as many volunteer programs offer housing and meals in return for the volunteer work. (Helpx.net is a resource for finding such volunteer opportunities.) 

Or, in the same way that my University and I experimented with a brand new study abroad experience with student-teaching abroad, you can do the same thing in partnership with your University. 

#StudyAbroadBecause A Global Perspective Is A Better Perspective

How has international education impacted or influenced your cultural identity? 

International education helped to give me a global context for my position in the world. It also gave me a global context for American habits, so to speak. 

For instance, we get very used to political banter, and we accept certain topics as being controversial and certain problems or divisions as "just the way things are". Conservative folks think this way and liberal folks think this other way. But when you travel abroad, it's amazing to see an entirely different set of things causing controversy in that community. And suddenly it becomes apparent that we are all at least somewhat susceptible to the habits and thought patterns of our culture. 

I'll give a non-political example. One of my student-teaching students asked if American high school was really like High School Musical (a popular movie at the time). Specifically, she wanted to know if there really are cliques - the cheerleaders eat lunch with the cheerleaders and the football players eat lunch with the football players, etc. I told her that yes, in my high school experience there were little cliques like that, and students tended to stick with their "cliques." The students seemed very surprised. "You mean you don't just sit with everyone at lunch time?" I thought back to my high school experience. I sat with the same table of people every day and knew which few others I would be welcome to join, and which many I would not be. It amazed me that this wasn't their experience, so we discussed it a bit. We talked about how they didn't have a school basketball team, or a cheerleading team. They talked about the different ways they think about who is "popular" and who is not. And it was fascinating to realize that there is in fact a different way of "doing" high school. Their way of establishing popularity still had its own problems, but they were different problems.

So in a sense, international education helped me to see that some of our habits are just that - habits, but they're not necessarily the way things need to be. And I began to realize that some of my opinions or views might be part of that "American habit" so to speak. And that some of them might be wrong, or incomplete. 

#StudyAbroadBecause A Global Perspective Is A Better Perspective

Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

Travel in general is such an important way to see the world in a clearer way. If you don't have the opportunity to join a study abroad, consider traveling for travel's sake on your own! 

And if you visit Northern Ireland, visit my beloved Derry and look at the beautiful murals that depict "the troubles". This "bogside" area is the exact neighborhood I lived in and "the troubles" were still fresh memories for our host families. I had the honor and pleasure of living with "Paddy Bogside's" daughter. Paddy Bogside was an incredible civil rights activist who just passed away this past weekend. My heart goes out to his family. His legacy will be remembered forever.  

#StudyAbroadBecause A Global Perspective Is A Better Perspective




All photos courtesy and copyright Caroline Macomber