From Risk-Taking Freshman to Irish Adventurer: The Challenges and Rewards of Being Your University’s First Freshman Abroad

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At 18-years-old, I did not cry when I said goodbye to my parents at 6:00 am at the Tulsa International Airport before I would leave them for four months.  No, I stayed strong and waited until they were out of my sight before I booked it to the airport bathroom to let out all the emotions and fears that I had been holding in for the past four months.  Because four months before that day, the University of Tulsa had asked if I wanted to be the first freshman that they have ever sent abroad, and I had said yes.

So there I was, a freshman in college who hadn’t ever been away from her family for more than a week much less been out of the country, about to take the biggest risk of my life by moving to Ireland for four months.  That risk presented both rewards and challenges, and in the end, the experiences I gained greatly outweighed any obstacles I had to overcome.

The Challenges

When I left for the University of Limerick in Ireland, I was only five months into my college experience.  I had only just begun to adjust to campus life and establish new relationships, and instead of having a full year to develop those friendships, I had but one semester before I left.  For me, this was the most difficult part of studying abroad as a freshman.  In addition, being the firstfreshman at my university to study abroad meant that I had no one to prepare me or give me advice for this adversity.

But I quickly overcame this through not only Skyping with my new friends back home, but also making some incredible friends within the IFSA-Butler program at the University of Limerick.  These friends at UL enhanced my study abroad experience at every turn as we traveled and experienced the world side-by-side; their friendship greatly aided me in overcoming my homesickness.

The Rewards

The friends I made at the University of Limerick were one of the benefits afforded me by my risk in studying abroad as a freshman, but the opportunities I received from my coursework at UL were another, rather unexpected, reward through the many one-of-a-kind opportunities each course offered me.  My midwifery courses covered specific topics I truly enjoyed learning about such as the procedures for labor and delivery and even how to resuscitate an apneic infant.  By practicing on the simulation robots, I had the chance to learn clinical skills that I won’t have the opportunity to learn at my home university for a while longer. Because I had the chance while abroad to take such advanced courses so early on in my college career, I now feel better prepared than my fellow nursing students as we begin to enter clinical placements and learn skills similar to these that I have already been taught.  Beyond the classroom, this international experience in the medical field will increase my desirability and attractiveness to employers in the future as I interview and compete against others for positions in popular hospital divisions such as the Labor and Delivery Unit or the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. In addition to my midwifery courses, I also took courses that delved into the Irish culture, including Irish Folklore, where I participated in Irish traditions such as making a St. Brigid’s Cross out of rushes on her feast day, and Irish Music and Dance, where I learned how to do perform different traditional céilí dances.

Perhaps my favorite abroad experience involved the service learning course I completed in a small Irish town called Bruff.  The town had been suffering from a lack of unified communication, so my project partner Nicole and I created a solution for them.  We developed the first town newsletter for the community which was received with much praise.  While I worked to better this community, I even got the opportunity to not only spend the night with one of the Irish families living there but also walk in the town’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.  That weekend, I ate home-cooked Irish meals (and was given all the recipes), went to a singsong in a local pub, visited a local fairy fort, and fully immersed myself in the Irish culture.  This is just one of the many incredible opportunities I encountered that made my study abroad experience well worth the risk.

Home Sweet Home

Even though I am now home and well into the school year, the challenges of that risk are still forthcoming. Because I went abroad so early, the first at my university to do so, none of my other friends had had the opportunity to study abroad yet.  Sharing my experiences with them proved to be difficult; it is hard for someone to understand the enormity of something such as study abroad and how much it changes you without having firsthand experience, so sharing my past four months with them proved to be difficult because they could not relate to my experiences.  But I tackled this difficulty of sharing my study abroad experience by becoming very involved with my university’s Center for Global Education.  With their help, I have had the opportunity to share my experiences with other prospective study abroad students as well as meet other students who have already studied abroad and understand the difficulties, thrills, and life-changing moments that come with such an experience.

In addition, now that a few of my friends are currently studying abroad as sophomores, I can read their blogs and really connect and relate with their experiences.  Whether their blogs explain how the first month passes by so slowly and then suddenly it seems there’s no time left or they talk about how their study abroad cities start to feel like home after extensive travel, I find myself reading and then exclaiming, “YES! Exactly!” as I remember having the very same thoughts and feelings.

While studying abroad as a freshman may have presented me with some challenges, especially as the first freshman my university has ever sent abroad, these difficulties were not detrimental to my experience but rather strengthened it.  The unique opportunities and life experiences I was given at such a young age made this risk worth taking, and I am eternally grateful to all those who made it possible by helping me get abroad.

Natalie Ames is a student at the University of Tulsa and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Limerick in Limerick, Ireland in spring 2017.

Article by Natalie Ames