Posted by Cynthia Liang
From the time that I entered the McDermott Scholars Program, I told myself that I would spend a full academic semester abroad. I’ve always dreamed of living in a foreign country for an extended amount of time – not just a month or two during the summer. I wanted to be fully immersed in a different culture, living alongside locals and adopting the new environment as my own. So, at the end of my sophomore year, I made arrangements to spend the spring 2015 semester in Dublin, Ireland. Studying abroad is an essential part of the McDermott Scholar experience, and as this semester wraps up, I can definitely see why. My experience abroad, though largely what I’d expected, has had its ups and downs. It’s both surprised me in good ways and disappointed me in other respects. But all in all, I’ve learned more about who I am as a person, and I think that’s exactly what I needed.
As I write this blog post, I’m sitting in my dorm room – blinds open and letting the sun (yes, as opposed to popular belief, there is quite a bit of sunshine in Ireland!) pour in. It just seems so normal. It seems like something I would do back at home at UT Dallas. And maybe that’s what’s been the most striking thing to me about my study abroad experience – everything feels very normal. After spending so many weeks here, I learned to develop a schedule. Like the rest of the students at Dublin City University, I go to class, volunteer, study in the library, cook meals, go to the gym, and attend various on-campus events with my friends. Once or twice a week, I go grocery shopping, making the 15-20 minute walk to Omni shopping center to pick up foods that I would normally eat back in the US. I don’t feel much like an outsider; I don’t feel much like I’m living a life completely different from what I’m used to. But, I’m sure that this is largely due to my choice of location to study abroad. Ireland, though with its own Irish language, is indeed an English speaking country where the lifestyle is very similar to that in the US. The biggest difference in lifestyle is probably just that everything closes much earlier here than they do in the US. The city seems to shut down for the most part after 6-7 pm, aside from restaurants and nightlife. But all in all, I think I’ve adjusted well to Irish environment, and I’ve come to love the Irish people. The Irish are quite possibly the most friendly, welcoming, and kind people I’ve ever met. They’re always willing to strike up conversation. They’re always joking around, throwing around insults and whatnot. They’re so relaxed and seemingly never stressed out. I absolutely love every part of it.
Since starting this semester, I’ve also gotten to travel a lot, both within Ireland and out of the country. In the beginning of the semester, when we had more time, my friends and I would go to explore Dublin city or take trips to other Irish cities and towns on the weekends. On our first weekend in Ireland, we took a two hour bus ride to Killiney, a beach town just south of Dublin. We picked up some food at the local grocery store, hiked to the top of the hill in Killiney Hill Park, and then ate a feast of bread and cream cheese while overlooking the sea and a beautiful field of yellow flowers. I remember it was absolutely freezing that day, even under the sun. By the time we finished eating, we couldn’t move or feel our fingers anymore!
Some other locations I’ve visited within Ireland include Galway, Cork, Kilkenny, Howth, Connemara National Park, and the Cliffs of Moher. Outside of the country, I’ve traveled to Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, and I’m planning to leave for a trip to Denmark, Sweden, and Norway in just three days. At the end of May, after my final exams and before I return to the US, I’m visiting both London and Oxford to see some Americans friends who are studying abroad as well. Although I’ve studied abroad in the past (a month in Italy in summer 2009), I don’t think I’ve truly caught the travel bug until now. Throughout this semester, I’ve slowly begun to feel more independent, capable, and free. It may sound silly, honestly, but even just this mere ability to book plane tickets whenever I want, travel to wherever I want to go to, and meet so many different people I would otherwise not meet gives me a powerful feeling of control over my life. It makes me feel like I can do a lot of other things too, as long as I simply take action for what I want.
However, even with all the highs of traveling, making new friends, and experiencing fantastic new cultures while abroad, I can’t say that I haven’t hit any lows in the time I’ve been in Ireland. When I left UTD, I definitely underestimated the emotional toll this semester would take on me. I’d heard from people that adjusting to a new environment is hard. I’d heard at the UTD Education Abroad orientation that students will miss home once the initial excitement of being in a new place fades. But honestly, I just thought, “okay, blah blah blah, I’ll be fine.” I didn’t expect myself to feel like that because I’d moved around so much while growing up. I thought that I would be okay with making new friends, acclimating to a new environment, and building a new community for myself. But in reality, this experience abroad hasn’t been so easy for me. In the past few months, there have been more than a few bad days when I’ve wished so deeply that I could be home again. I think a large part of it is because…I’ve simply gotten so comfortable in the UTD community over the years. People say college is the “best time of your life” for a reason (though to be fair, I don’t know how much better my life may get, but college really has been the best part of my life thus far). I’ve spent so much time getting close to the people around me at UTD, integrating myself so fully into the UTD community. Leaving something I’d come to know so well and entering a different university’s community, where everyone seemed to already have their place…well, that was just rough. It has challenged me. Definitely.
But still, if anyone asks me if I would rather have stayed at UTD this semester, I would absolutely say no. I don’t regret making this decision at all because, like I mentioned earlier, I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve learned that I’m the type of person who likes to stay busy, whether that’s with school, work, or activities. Without a packed day to day schedule, I’m sometimes left feeling lost and unsure of what to do. I’ve learned from my classes this semester that I’m not cut out for “100% exam” courses, where the final exam determines your whole grade for the class. I do so much better in classes that have continuous assessments throughout the semester. I’ve learned that I may not be as outgoing as I’ve always thought, and that that’s absolutely fine. I sometimes push myself too much to meet people and be a “social butterfly.” I’ve learned that I actually really love cooking. With a lighter course load than what I’ve had at UTD, I’ve spent more time looking up recipes and experimenting with a diverse array of ingredients.
While at Dublin City University, I’ve also gotten a chance to take an economics class – Macroeconomic Policy – and I’ve enjoyed it so much. Being a pre-med, neuroscience major without much of an economics background, I’ve struggled quite a bit in this class, which is meant for final year Accounting and Finance students. However, I think that enrolling in it was one of the best academic decisions I’ve ever made. I’ve learned a considerable amount about the economies of Ireland and other Euro-zone countries. I’ve learned about causes of the 2007/2008 financial crisis, the crisis itself, and the problems still currently in the Euro-zone. I’ve learned about low-income economies and ways in which they can increase their growth and standard of living. I’ve been fascinated by this class…and it makes me consider a future direction I want to take my career. I want to pursue medicine, but I also want to look more into health policy. I definitely need to do more research about this field, but Macroeconomic Policy has given me a strong push into this direction.
As this semester begins to wrap up, I can’t help but think about all the things I would’ve done differently this semester. I don’t regret much, mainly because I feel like I needed to learn the lessons that I learned from my mistakes. These lessons have really helped me figure myself out. However, I do wish that I did one thing differently – I really wish I could’ve kept a more positive outlook throughout my entire experience abroad, especially during the hard times. I feel that I could’ve benefited a lot more from this experience if I had been more resilient during the days that I felt lonely, stressed out, or homesick. I would’ve enjoyed my time abroad more if I had been more optimistic.
Through these past few months, I’ve realized that studying abroad is a very important experience to have. It really does “widen your horizons” and “expand your view of the world” and “challenge your comfort zone” as everyone commonly says. But, I’ve also realized that these things don’t happen in series of monumental events. It’s not like you suddenly turn into a different or wiser person. Rather, you change because of the small events – the small events that may happen here and there, the small events that each time teach you just a little something more about yourself that you didn’t know before. So, as I wrap up my semester abroad, I’ve come to this conclusion: the best gift of studying abroad is the opportunity to learn more about yourself and grow from it.