When you hop on a plane and head across the pond to take college classes in another country, no matter how much research you do, there will still be things that come as a surprise.
It may not cross your mind to think about how classes are taught differently in another country, but it is something that many students are surprised by. Different cultural norms and traditions can mean that classes are taught rather differently than you’re used to. In addition, some of the biggest differences may be the ability to take classes abroad that aren’t offered at your home university.
That’s why we asked a summer USAC student from Galway, Ireland, to fill us in on what it’s like to take classes in Ireland. Meagan is a history major from the University of Alabama, Huntsville and here’s what she had to say about her acadamic experience in Galway.
What’s the biggest difference between classes in Galway and classes in the U.S.?
Can I say subject matter? I mean, a lot of little things were different. Paper sizes are different in Ireland, which was something I had to account for when writing essays. It’s not much of a difference, but if you are writing something in Ireland, it is important to resize your word documents to fit A6 paper. I was oddly terrified about having to use the word “color” for whatever reason and losing points for forgetting to change it to “colour”. This never actually came up, but I suppose spelling differences could be important in some classes. To be honest, classes were pretty similar from country to country. For me, the biggest difference was simply that the classes I took would not have been offered at my home university.
What is your favorite class and why?
My favorite class was Irish Music. I have always loved music and dance, but have not been able to study them much at home. This class gave me the opportunity to explore the historical changes in music and dance, as well as giving me a few skills. I got to try out sean-nós dancing, which I would like to practice at home when I have my tap shoes. I also learned a few tunes on the tin whistle, which I plan to continue practicing when I find the time. It satisfied my intellectual interests and let me take part in the traditions that I studied. I really couldn’t ask for anything more.
It looks like you’re taking some pretty unique classes (like Irish music, and introduction to Gaelic) how did you decide what classes you would take?
Going abroad this summer may have been a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing for me, and I’ve been keenly aware of that since I first decided to go. I decided that I wanted to take the classes that seemed most interesting, most important to the culture, and overall the least likely for me to find anywhere else. I’m a history student at my home university, with a background in theatre and English. The three classes I decided not to take were in history, English, and theatre. That was not by accident. As much as I love these subjects, history and English can be learned anywhere. Irish plays have made it to the United States, and can be seen in production here at some locations, and can certainly be read. Music and language are things I felt I could not learn from a book.
Are classes more lecture or hands-on?
I suppose that depends on the class and the day. My classes were largely hands-on, though I know that the other classes were more traditional, with lectures, readings, and papers. The Irish Music class met twice a week, with a large portion of one class being lecture, a large portion of the other being a concert or workshop, and a little bit of time each day spent practicing our tin whistles. Introduction to Gaelic was very little lecture, which you would expect from it being a language class. We did a lot of dictionary-hunting and conversation work in class and worked on a few short skits and monologues outside of class that we presented in the language.
How big are class sizes?
My music class was only six students, myself included. Introduction to Gaelic probably had about 15 students. I was told that there is generally an average of 15 students in any particular class, however, so this year’s music class size was unusual.
What is your commute to school like?
We lived in the on-campus dormitories, and our classes were all located in a building about five minutes walk away, so the commute was not really a big deal. When the music class had a change in location or we were coming back from town, we often crossed the campus, which was a longer commute. Altogether, there was rarely too significant of a distance to go anywhere, since a walk from our dorms to the city was under an hour.
What is the University like? Do people hang out on campus or just come and go? Are there cool places to eat/things to do on campus?
The campus is really beautiful, but we didn’t tend to spend too much time there. When you’re in another country, it can feel like you’re wasting time if you aren’t constantly out doing something. There is a dock near the river just two or three minutes from the dorms that a lot of students liked to hang out on in their down time, and I liked to sit outside to do my homework if we were having good weather. I think we would have explored campus more if we had been there longer, but there really is an instinct to be in the city whenever you have the time to do it. As far as food goes, I generally either ate on campus or cooked in the dorms. There’s a little shop near the dorms that makes sandwiches and pizzas, as well as a cafeteria, sandwich shops and pub.
Do you get to interact with local students either in class or on campus?
Unfortunately, I didn’t really interact with locals much at all. You would run into them some when you were out in town or at shows, but I found that while on campus, most people were just focused on getting to and from class, and didn’t interact terribly much. Our classes were specific to USAC, so the only students in class with us were those in the program. I know that some of the other students had more interactions with locals, but I didn’t really have that experience.
What has been the biggest surprise about attending school in Ireland?
I think the biggest surprise was how much of a fight went on inside my head some days between doing my school work and exploring. I’m typically a fairly focused student, staying in and not being social until my work is completed. That didn’t really work as well this summer because there was always a question of what I would learn from more: classes or living. It’s a hard balance to strike, but I think in general I found a good middle point. I have excellent memories of exploring Galway, shopping, and seeing plays and concerts. Likewise, I am extremely proud of the work I did in learning the language and studying music traditions. I suppose I just wasn’t prepared at the start for that to be a question.
Any additional tips or insight you think other students going to Galway would want to know about classes?
I think it really comes down to picking the classes that will make you happy. Within the first week, I knew that I had chosen exactly the right classes for what I needed at the time. Don’t take classes just because you think you should take them, or they will be more valuable on an application. As I said before, there will be a bit of tug-of-war going on between your schoolwork and your desire to explore, and if you are in classes you don’t enjoy, you will not find a balance that you are happy with.
To learn more about the classes offered in Galway, visit the USAC website.