Kylemore Abbey

“And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow…” – William Butler Yeats

This St. Patrick’s Day, I found myself in a local Irish pub just outside of Atlanta, sipping a pint of Guinness and polishing off a bar pretzel. The two friends, a Miller and a Joyce, joining me, a Sullivan—if you’ll believe it—were both college friends, both fellow travelers on our shared study abroad experience to Ireland three years ago.

“What was the first pub we went to in Dublin? The one with the free Wi-Fi?” one of them, the Joyce, asked.

“Madigan’s,” I said.

“How do you even remember that?” the Miller, asked.

“You never forget your first Irish pub.”

Grasping “Place”

In our understanding of place, it’s dangerously easy to reduce a culture, its geography and its people down to the essential or stereotypical parts of the whole. Ireland is quick: green, shamrocks, leprechauns, Catholicism, step dancing, dark beer in tall glasses, Celtic crosses.

why study abroad
Photo courtesy of Captblack76 via Shutterstock.

As a young girl, there was nothing special about my desire to travel to Ireland. It was an item on the list of things I wanted to do in life, one I had penned in my elementary school journal, alongside riding in a hot air balloon, having a daughter and going to college (in no particular order).

In college I had yet to fly on a plane. I was born, raised and educated in Georgia. “Travel” usually equaled packing up a car and driving to Florida, Tennessee or the Carolinas, usually to a tourist-clogged beach or mountain town. The thought, then, of leaving the country and living abroad for a semester or year seemed like too big a first bite of international travel. A careful, look-before-she-leaps kind of person, I wanted a way to ease in.

Literary Ireland

The “Literary Ireland” winter break trip was thus the perfect option: to a country I had always wanted to see, in my field of study, and for a duration of time that was digestible for a travel novice.

After a semester of studying Irish literature and history under the tutelage of two English professors at my tiny women’s college, me and about twenty of my peers boarded a plane a few days after Christmas, briefly stopping in New York, then curving over the eastern shore of the island in the gray light of morning.

My professor had told us, “I think you’ll be surprised by how much Ireland will feel like home.”

And she was right. In the way that I think the South is (sometimes) able to warmly unfold itself for you, so did Ireland.

Every tour guide greeted us with a “You’re very welcome here.” Every fellow bar patron who learned we were from Georgia was happy to recognize a piece of Atlanta in us (everyone knows the airport, apparently). Every green field we passed in our tour bus reminded me of the cow pastures that filled my hometown and had inexplicably comforted me for 18 years.

We traveled around the entire island in about three weeks, our itinerary bursting at the seams with stops both literary and historic: the Dublin Writer’s Museum, Kilmainham Gaol, Newgrange, Coole Park, Blarney Castle, the monastic beehive huts of the Dingle Peninsula, Kylemore Abbey, Innisfree, Drumcliffe Church, the Free Derry Museum a walking tour of the Belfast murals.

why study abroad
Photo courtesy of Jan Miko via Shutterstock.

Why Study Abroad? For A Transformative Experience

And yet, when Ireland comes back to me, it isn’t usually those tourist highlights.

It’s all the small moments—washing my clothes in a hotel bathtub with detergent purchased from a nearby Tesco, spotting two swans on the River Liffey just as the clock struck midnight on New Year’s, the rush of the River Corrib as we walked through Galway, dancing to the Macarena on O’Connell Street and eating street food in Dublin on our last night of the trip—that stay with me, remind me why we seek travel and novel experiences to begin with.

I cannot definitively say that Ireland is the reason I am now a poet, but that trip was the beginning of a new way of looking at my life.

If I had boarded that first plane, what else was I capable of? What were the risks I wasn’t taking?

I remember standing at the Ladies View in the Ring of Kerry, and the scenery was so beautiful all I could do was laugh with delight. The next year, I changed my grad school plans from social work to creative writing. I began an MFA program in poetry after I finished my bachelor’s, and I’m now a year from my next degree.

why study abroad
Photo courtesy of yykkaa via Shutterstock.

The morning I read “Easter 1916” at Arbour Hill Cemetary, the moment we read “Under Ben Bulben” under the real Ben Bulben, every time I hear that recording of Yeats reading “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” I am reminded of moments that undo us, move us. I am reminded of why I love poetry. I am reminded of why it feels right to go out into the world and let it stretch you, dumbfound you.

The practicalities of graduate school, of work, and of everyday responsibility currently limit my travel opportunities.

But, I’m okay with that.

I find the same sort of thrill in the work I do now as I did traveling across that country. And perhaps that is the ultimate gift my first international travel experience gave me: the desire to always hunger for a richness of experience, home or abroad.

How would you answer the question “Why Study Abroad?” Please share in the comments below.

By Paige Sullivan

Paige Sullivan

Paige Sullivan is currently an MFA candidate in the creative writing program at Georgia State University, where she also works as a composition instructor and the poetry editor of New South, a literary journal. Her poetry appears or will soon appear in Qu, the American Literary Review, Mead, and others. In her spare time, she loves to write about foodways, animal ethics, creativity, and the city of Atlanta.

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1 Comment

  1. That’s a great read, thanks for the info! Ireland is one of my favorite countries to visit, and I rarely hear about students studying there. I never got to study abroad, but my cousin recently wrote about her experience on my blog, and I’ve now gotten nostalgic. Maybe in another life. Great story, thanks for sharing!

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