Alumni Q&A: Leanne – Galway, Ireland

Leanne Howard – Galway, Ireland, Summer 2011

1. Why did you choose the program that you did?

I’ve always loved Ireland. I was an Irish dancer for 8 years and my family heritage is Irish. I visited the country when I was 16, and I’ll never forget my first glimpse of the island when I was landing: it was so covered in trees that it looked black against the ocean water. I thought at that moment, “I’m already in love with this place.” So I knew I had to go back!

2. If or when you study abroad again, where would you like to go? Why?

I’d like to think I would go somewhere brand new to me, like China or Chile, but I have to say that I’ve seen some of the course offerings in Cork, Ireland, and they would be hard to resist. I love history, especially Irish and British.

3. What are some of your favorite highlights from your time abroad?

My number one favorite experience was performing in the Macnas parade during the Galway Arts Festival. I took the USAC theater course, and my professor convinced a group of us to be volunteer performers in Macnas. The parade itself has been going on for several years now and is a lot closer to street art than what we would think of as a “parade” in the US: there are actors and actresses in full costume, dancing or walking on stilts; there are huge structures made to match the theme of the year, which in 2011 was “This Fierce Beauty” and included a giant puppet girl, a fire-breathing dragon, a crazed steampunk poet, an explorer, and much, much more. Our part as the volunteer performers began before the parade even started. We walked the reverse of the parade route performing a skit, and then we met up with the start of the parade and joined the crowd back to the end. It was amazing to be performing along with a lot of local friends and in front of all the citizens of Galway who had come out to watch. Here’s a nice video with shots of the parade; I’m in the horde of crazy people dancing in white shirts at the very end (not an exaggeration!):

4. In your experience, what are the major benefits of studying abroad?

I think studying abroad is a truly humbling experience, and I also believe everyone benefits from a little more humility and compassion in their lives. As soon as I first stepped off the plane in a new country, I was amazed at the thought that all the people around me were going about their busy, varied lives and traditions halfway across the world, every day. Suddenly, I understood that I was a very small part of a big, big world.


5. What were some of the special/unique things you were able to do or see?

Galway in the summer is an experience you will never get at any other place or time. Over the course of our five week program, we were involved in the Galway Film Fleadh (Festival), the Galway Arts Festival, and the Galway Horse Races. We saw a screening of the movie Badlands followed by an in-person interview with Martin Sheen; we saw the premiere of a documentary about Irish politician Bernadette Devlin, who was elected to the British Parliament when she was only 18, and we got to attend a Q&A with her afterward. We attended the opening night of several plays during the Arts Fest, and we got to meet Irish actor Cillian Murphy on the first night of his one-man performance, Misterman. Any one of these experiences would be amazing, but the sum total of all of them made for a truly unique set of memories.

6. What was a funny cultural experience?

My first introduction to the Irish sense of humor came on the Optional Dublin Tour, while we were on a walking tour with an Irish historian (and comedian). I was wearing a t-shirt for the band The Strokes, and our tour guide saw it and said, “They’re playing a secret show in Dublin tonight.” Needless to say, I got excited, and he told me he’d share the location at the end of the tour. Yes, I’m an extremely gullible person, which made me a perfect target for that Irish humor. When the tour ended, I said, “What about the secret show?” and he said, “Oh, I just made that up.” The joke was on me, but it was a great moment to laugh at myself and move on. An important lesson that Irish humor taught me well…

7. What did you learn about yourself?

In addition to being gullible, I’m also pretty shy. When my theater professor told me about performing in the Macnas parade, I was a second away from saying no, because I’m not a spotlight person. However, I told myself that I was studying abroad for unique cultural experiences, so if I said no to them, what was the point of coming to Ireland? That got me to my first parade rehearsal, and then I came out of my shell for the second one… and after that, I ended up having one of the best experiences of my life. I learned to trust in my own abilities and be confident like I’d never done before. Now I’m a lot less afraid to say yes to the unknown!

8. How did studying abroad change you?

In addition to some very important lessons in humility and confidence, studying abroad in Ireland taught me to understand the complex, layered history behind my adopted nation. There are so many stereotypes about Ireland and the Irish in America. I enjoyed seeing Ireland from a new perspective and picking out the complicated truths and falsehoods behind “Irishness” today.

9. What’s one thing you would have done differently?

I wish I had participated in the Dublin Field Study in addition to the Dublin Tour at the start of my program. I originally shied away from “working” while on the tour, but now I wish I had taken advantage of the expertise of the professor and the amazing location. After all, nothing beats learning about a place by being there, walking around, and visiting the sites that you’d normally read about in history books.

10. Now that you’re home, how has study abroad impacted your life?

Well, one major impact that studying abroad has had on my life is that I work for USAC as a Program Advisor for Ireland. I get to help students share my fantastic experience and make Irish memories of their own, which is a daily reward. On top of that, I’ve continued my interest in Irish history through reading and research on my own time, and it’s been a huge inspiration for my writing. I actually just finished my first ever novel-length work that is partially inspired by my time in Ireland . . . so it’s been a huge creative influence!

11. How many years did it/will it take you to graduate?

It took me five years. I double majored in English and French with a minor in Women’s Studies. If I hadn’t added the English major, I actually could have graduated in three years because I studied abroad in France through USAC during my sophomore year. Study abroad ended up shortening my total time . . . or would have, had I not honestly decided to draw it out a bit.

12. What are you doing now?

I’m working as a Program Advisor for USAC, like I mentioned, and in addition to Ireland, I advise for China and a couple of our England locations as well. I’m also taking some grad classes in writing and trying to work on fiction on the side.

13. What, in your opinion, are the biggest myths students believe about study abroad?

Number one: finances. I thought studying abroad would be much more expensive than it was. I was fortunate to be able to use scholarships to pay for my program, but if I hadn’t had that, I now know there are tons of resources for financing. And if you’d go into debt for a semester at your home institution, why wouldn’t you to study abroad in an entirely new country? Think of it as an investment for your future – the money you spend now will be paid back tenfold with a study abroad program on your resume.

14. What advice would you tell students trying to decide whether or not to study abroad?

I’ve never talked to a single returning student who regretted their experience abroad, but I’ve talked to countless people who say that they wish they’d done it. The post-grads of the world are not joking when they say that your undergrad is your best chance to go – so make it happen.