Natalie is a senior studying business management and professional writing at Grand Canyon University (GCU). After her original study abroad dreams were delayed due to COVID-19, Natalie found herself studying abroad in Cork, Ireland her senior year. We chatted with Natalie about her decision to make study abroad happen during a global pandemic.
Why did you choose Cork, Ireland for your study abroad?
Ireland has always been a place of interest to me because of its culture and beautiful landscape. Also, a part of my family ancestry is from Ireland, so this encouraged my decision to come here. Originally, I applied to Galway for my study abroad semester, which ended up not working out because of COVID-19.
How does this program’s offerings align with your academic goals?
This program offers a variety of unique and interesting topics to study. University College Cork (UCC) offers tons of business courses, but I am only taking one course for my major and studying other areas that interest me. This program also offers a tremendous amount of courses that I would not be able to take in the U.S. I wanted to branch out of my major and take unique courses, such as Greek mythology, Ancient Celtic origins, and Freshwater science. It was a goal of mine to study subjects that I’ve desired to know more about but am limited to doing at my home university.
Your initial study abroad plans were pushed back twice due to COVID-19. Why was it important for you to not give up on studying abroad?
It was important for me not to give up on studying abroad because this was a college achievement I set out to succeed in. The prospect of living on my own and finding my own way in another country had challenge and adventure written all over it. It seemed so important to me that I spent time in another culture to expand my horizon. College is the time to live, and I figured that this would be memorable since my college experience has been ordinary so far.
What are the pros and cons of studying abroad during your senior year?
Interestingly enough, I think studying abroad my senior year was better than doing it during another year. I have almost all my classes done, so when I go back to my home university next semester, I will graduate with this experience freshly imprinted in my mind. A pro of studying abroad my senior year is that it’s motivating me to get through my last year of my undergrad. Another pro is that I can learn about topics that I wouldn’t be able to at my regular university.
A con of studying abroad my senior year is how I’m missing out on some of my friends graduating back home. Usually, your senior year of college is when you finally get into a routine and college is winding down for some students, but I wanted to go in the opposite direction. Another con is when I get back, I don’t have plans because it’s hard to set up jobs and internships when I’m not actually at home.
Were you apprehensive about studying abroad during the pandemic?
As someone who has been extremely shy their entire life, I was apprehensive about studying abroad during the pandemic because I thought it would be too difficult for me to communicate with anyone. I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to explore Ireland or that I might get stuck while traveling in a different country. Even though all the protocols were outlined, and I read up on all I had to do, it was extremely difficult to picture the process itself and caused me to be stressed about coming to Ireland.
How has USAC and UCC supported students during the pandemic?
USAC and UCC have both been great about supporting students during the pandemic. Of course, students were encouraged to travel solely within Ireland to reduce exposure to the virus and so we would not get stuck in another country. My USAC Resident Director took us on a few trips but encouraged us to be careful and cautious. I really appreciated the opportunity though, since we went to some of the most amazing places. UCC put protocols and guidelines in place for sports clubs and societies to follow, which helped students socialize but still be safe. Classes were also following the safety guidelines to make sure students and professors were able to maintain face-to-face lectures.
Have you been able to have a fulfilling study abroad experience in spite of the pandemic?
Despite the pandemic, I would say yes, I have definitely been fulfilling my study abroad experience! Traveling around Ireland has been such a blast and so eye-opening. I love the culture here and have met people from all over the world. And I did travel outside of Ireland once, to Athens, Greece. It was a little scary to travel during the pandemic, but everything worked out and Athens was a beautiful city! I hope that I can come back to Ireland and visit more places that I didn’t see during these four months.
How does the Irish academic system compare to that in the U.S.?
Compared to the U.S., the academic system in Ireland is very different. I remember that I was confused when my professors first outlined the courses. In two of my classes, I had a mixture of an essay and a few quizzes that go into the grade book. In my other two courses, I only have one essay, and one exam – and that’s all. At my home university, we have participation points every week, and at least two assignments due every month. Stress levels are high throughout the entire semester at home. Here, the workload is lighter at UCC, but they expect high-quality work. The grading system also varies. It’s stricter and has slightly different grading categories. The lesser workload at the beginning of this semester was nice and allowed time for traveling, but as the semester is winding down, a lot of assignments are due on the same day. Fortunately, some professors are flexible with deadlines because they know students are traveling home to different countries.
How have you immersed yourself in the local community and campus life?
I would like to think that I have accomplished some level of immersion in both the local community and campus life. Living in City Center for Cork is convenient because I can grocery shop, dine out, and accomplish clothes and book shopping all within a walkable distance. Although there are numerous bars and pubs here, I have only been to a few. I try to walk or run every day to explore parts of the city that I’ve never seen before. The campus life I have immersed myself in is the sports clubs. I played all sorts of sports including badminton, table tennis, tennis, archery, and squash with locals and other international students.
What is your favorite part about studying in Cork?
My favorite part about studying in Cork is Cork itself. This is a great city where the inhabitants are friendly. The city is super festive and has Christmas lights set up all throughout the center with a Ferris wheel just around the corner. I enjoy walking to any destination I want in the city. It’s a stark contrast to Arizona where most travel is done by car, not by foot. One thing I am extremely grateful for is my flatmates. I don’t think my transition to living in Cork would’ve been so easy if not for these girls. And of course, I have to say, I do love the bookstore here. I visit it almost every day.
What is left on your study abroad goals or bucket list that you hope to complete before your semester ends?
When I arrived in Ireland, I didn’t really have a bucket list. Traveling to Cork and living here was about all I had in mind. I was open to anything Ireland had to offer and I think that I covered a lot of those goals as I went. I did want to visit Dingle or go to the Aran islands, but I do not think that will happen before I leave. There are a few places I would love to visit again, like Connemara, the Cliffs of Moher (it was raining when I went), Waterville, and Killarney.
What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned during your study abroad?
There were so many lessons I learned that I don’t think I can choose one. I will highlight only a few. One lesson I learned during my study abroad experience is that it’s okay not to know anything. I knew practically nothing about Irish people – only what was described in books or movies – but there’s nothing quite like experiencing the culture for yourself. I learned that some things aren’t as important as I thought they were. I had never lived on my own before, so it was interesting to see what things I valued over others, like water and food over comfort and style. And of course, I learned so much about Ireland that made me realize that there is so much more to learn about the world in which we live.
What advice do you have for students interested in studying abroad — in Cork or elsewhere?
My advice for students studying abroad is to never think that they know everything. There is always something to learn, so keep an open mind about the culture and yourself. Also, I thought it would be very difficult to study abroad and live on my own, but it’s all about completing one step, one task, at a time. Once that box is checked, then you can move on. Travel to Ireland — check. Meet people — check. Be smart — check. I realized that if I kept a hold of that fear of leaving my home, of being in a place that I had never been, then I would never grow. And that is the ultimate goal, I believe, of any experience. To better yourself.