Reflecting on My Time in Northern Ireland

It’s hard to believe that I’ve already been home for almost two months. During this time, I’ve done a lot of thinking and reflecting on my semester abroad. I can definitely say that coming back to the states is a lot harder than going to Northern Ireland was. Still, I learned a lot and I figured I’d share a little bit about what I learned and how my experiences are shaping my future.

Without further ado, I give you the top ten things I realized both in Northern Ireland and following my return.

No. 1: I don’t understand Americans.

Talking to other Americans is often hard. Since I’ve come back, I’ve realized how hard it is for me to communicate with Americans on certain issues, such as gun rights, health care and affordable higher education.

I’m not saying all Americans are horrible. In fact, some Americans are also quite liberal and agree wholeheartedly with me. The difference is that in Northern Ireland I felt like people understood my opinions, and here I feel like I am constantly having to explain and defend my opinions. I guess that there are some opinions that people will just never understand if they’ve never experienced another set of laws and policies.

No. 2: National pride is a strange thing.

Following my decreased tolerance for so-called “traditional American values,” I’ve also had to recognize what I really think about being an American. If you’ve ever had a conversation with me, you probably know that I am quite critical of “the system.” Specifically, the American system.

I’ve been frustrated for a long time, but now I feel more distant from my fellow citizens than ever. It’s a strange feeling, but one I’m coming to terms with pretty willingly.

No. 3: I actually like bigger cities.

I never really lived in a big city. My home town doesn’t even have a population of 300 people. The next town over, where I worked and attended high school, has less than 4,000 people. The town in which I am currently living and attending college is just under 24,500 people. In contrast, there are over 280,000 people living in Belfast.

To me, Belfast was huge. Now that I’m back, I feel like everything is just so tiny. I find myself feeling a bit lonely when I don’t see quite so many people out and about. 

No. 4: Plans are overrated (most of the time).

I tend to stress out about what exactly it is I’m doing tomorrow, next week, in the next year, etc. One thing I learned while abroad is that I need to chill out. There were multiple trips that were not well-defined. We made sure that we had key places, travel routes, transportation and a time frame figured out, but we didn’t have detailed plans of what we were doing. Honestly, I think that worked out better. We did a lot of random things off the beaten path that we never would have found by sticking to a strict plan. Life is better when you go with the flow.

No. 5: Be flexible and ready for disaster.

There were a lot of things that didn’t work out on my trip. For example, the weekend we went to Scotland there was a major mudslide which created an impassible roadblock. We had to restructure our entire next day on the fly. Yes, it was frustrating, but we had to take things in stride.

Even when the car took a detour to the ditch on the west coast, we kept calm (okay, I panicked a little) and got the car unstuck. Forrest Gump is always right. “Life is a box of chocolates,” and sometimes you get ones that you don’t like.

No. 6: Be enthusiastic and spontaneous.

Enthusiasm goes a long way. Trying new things and doing every random thing you come across… It’s pretty amazing. I was a lot less reserved while I was abroad because I wanted to have as many experiences as possible.

What I learned from this is that there’s a pretty big world out there. Surprisingly, you’ll still find things that are the same, no matter where you are, and that’s pretty spectacular, too.

No. 7: Living with less is better, not to mention cheaper.

This one was the most difficult upon arriving in Northern Ireland. All I took with me was one bag of checked luggage, one carry-on, and my backpack. The first night there I didn’t even have bedding.

I remember the first day realizing that the main things to concern myself with were food and water. I didn’t get to go shopping for bedding, kitchen items, and general things that I needed for school and my room in the flat until the next day.

Throughout the semester I often found that I didn’t always have everything I needed and often I would have to borrow something from other international students or go out and buy it. However, upon my return to the U.S. I suddenly feel smothered by stuff.

I’ve been doing my best to shove everything away into the basement (at home) and closet (in the apartment). I’ve found that a more minimalist lifestyle is comfortable for me, especially if I’m traveling.

No. 8: Remember what matters most.

One thing that I’m finding incredibly important is to preserve memories. I did so much in such a short amount of time and while I remember the general things I did, like visiting Edinburgh and hiking at Giant’s Causeway, there were also a lot of little things that were important to me, like remembering how the layers of paint looked on a special piece of graffiti art, or how I stayed up late into the night talking to other international students about politics over some wine.

Part of what I’ve done in response to this is print off the photos that meant the most to me. Each photo has a story to it. Maybe there was a particular joke or conversation, or maybe one of us did something stupid at that place. Maybe I had a realization there.

My photo album contains a unique collection of memories that mean something to me but is also a medium for me to show others some of the things that I saw and experienced.

My album, which many of you may have already seen.

No. 9: Friends made abroad are some of the best friends you’ll have.

This one is pretty special, but it’s not quite the most important thing I learned. I made some amazing friends (and found a twin!) in Northern Ireland despite the short amount of time we had together. I feel very privileged to have had the time to both meet and get to know people from all over the world. I hope I have the pleasure of crossing paths with everyone again!

No. 10: I have the confidence to live abroad.

The most important thing I learned while abroad is to that I am confident in new places. I didn’t know anyone the day I arrived. Everyone I met was brand new to me. Everywhere I went was different. Simple things, like figuring out how the electrical outlets worked, were different enough that I had to alter my everyday routine, if ever so slightly.

While abroad I learned to cook, use (some) public transportation and (sort of) drive a manual car among other things. There was always something different, but somehow I loved every moment of it (well… maybe not Dublin). In response to this, I’ve been thinking pretty seriously about where I want to be after I graduate. In the past I’ve been very confused by this question. Now I’ve realized the answer is simple: Europe.

That’s right! I’ve decided to get lost all over again by the end of 2015. I’m currently looking at graduate schools in Germany. That time spent in Mexico made me pretty confident that I can be outgoing enough to immerse myself in a new language comfortably. Also, Germany has tuition-free programs in English that will help me continue along my path to becoming a changemaker.

This may be the end of my story in Northern Ireland, but it’s not the end of my travels. I’ll keep you all posted on my graduate school status as well as sharing a few mini-adventures along the way.

Until my next adventure…


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