Before I left for Ireland, whenever I told someone that I was studying abroad, they would say, “Oh, great! Who are you going with?” I’d then have to explain that I’m the only person from my school, Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, studying abroad in Limerick this semester, so I won’t know anyone else until I get there and meet some new people. This would always be greeted with shocked faces and utterances of things like, “You’re so brave!” and, “I could never do that!”
But you absolutely can! The Limerick study abroad program conducted through AIFS, or American Institute for Foreign Study, has students from all different schools. This means that even if you’re the only student from your college or university traveling to a country for the semester, there will be at least around 15-20 other people on the program with you. And yes, while you don’t know who the heck these people are until your journey begins, they’ll become some of the fastest friends you’ll ever make.
I’ve traveled all over Ireland with my AIFS friends, and even though we’re all Americans, it’s still fun to learn about other parts of the US while experiencing an entirely new country at the same time. All of us studying abroad clearly have at least one thing in common: we want to be abroad. It’s nice to have a layer of comfort being with fellow Americans, but we all share the same goal of meeting new people from new places around the world.
Another great part of studying through AIFS is the fact that the company plans various trips throughout the semester. In mid-September, all 35 AIFS Limerick students took an overnight trip to the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland. We went to Inis Oírr, the smallest but best (according to the locals) of the three Aran Islands. All of us stayed in the same bed & breakfast together and explored the breathtaking island by foot and bike. It was an extraordinary trip and I’m glad I got to share it with my new friends who already feel like old ones.
But while exploring the Aran Islands, I remembered that I came on this study abroad trip to not only meet and learn about new people, but to learn about myself. Up to that point, I was so busy making plans and hanging out and traveling with others, I hadn’t given myself a chance to just hang out with myself.
At one point during our first afternoon on the island, I took my rented bike and decided to break away from the group for a little bit. As soon as we arrived on Inis Oírr, I saw the ruins of a large castle up at the peak of the hills on the island and knew I wanted to check it out, so that I did.
Me, myself, and I had to bike up one of the steepest hills I’ve ever seen, past little houses and horses and cows and children zooming past me going downhill on their bikes. Eventually, my legs had all but given out, so I began walking my bike up the hill. As I was huffing and puffing, I looked up and finally saw an opening through the stone walls surrounding the castle. I parked my bike and walked up one last hill, where I was finally greeted up-close and personal with the 14th century ruins of O’Brien’s Castle.
I climbed up and around the ruins for a while, exploring the most ancient structure in which I’ve ever stepped foot. After taking in the wonder of the castle, I sat on the edge of one of the stone walls and looked out over the island, listening as the Atlantic Ocean crashed onto the beachy shores. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, and just let myself be. In that moment, I was alone, up on the highest point of the island, and I truly felt like I was on top of the world.
That moment reminded me that I’m here to make and enjoy my own experience, and no one else’s. Being alone is important, as that’s when the opportunity to really appreciate what you’re seeing and doing really has time to settle in. All the friends I’ve made so far are absolutely wonderful, but I’m still my favorite person to hang out with.
This post was contributed by Mary Alice Maloney, who is studying abroad with AIFS in Limerick, Ireland.