I didn’t want to have to lose myself in order to find who I am supposed to be, but as I got my passport stamped in Cork Airport, I felt as if I was losing my identity. Coming from a small town and attending college in the smallest city on the east coast, I had been hesitant to study abroad since I knew that it probably meant going to a huge city, where I could potentially lose sight of myself and who I aspire to be in all the people, sites, responsibilities and activities.
Cork is different, it is not like the major cities I knew in the United States; Cork is unique. Its quaint streets are reminiscent of a historic small town, but it has the advantages of a big city. The first thing I had to adjust to was walking everywhere – and making sure to include extra travel time. I have always prided myself on my ability to always be on time, but during this experience I have been late more times than I can count because I fail to include extra travel time for walking from my building to the entrance to the apartment complex (where my maps think I’m starting from), or for having to stop before all of the puddles in the rain.
As the self-proclaimed second city of the Republic of Ireland and food capital, Cork is relatively cosmopolitan. However, there are a few things that set studying abroad in Cork apart from any other study abroad program. Before I got to Cork, I had decided that it would be easier to just say that I have Irish heritage rather than try to explain my array of ethnicities. I originally did this because at first glance it seemed like every student who comes to Cork from the United States has Irish heritage that they are trying to reclaim, but that is not the case, currently there are about 1500 students studying abroad at University College Cork which includes students from all over the world, with a variety of backgrounds and opinions. This made me realize that I didn’t have to compromise my understanding of who I am in terms of how I portray myself in order to learn more.
Beyond the University, there are markers of the prevalence of people who identify as white and Irish Catholic; however, even though my characteristics at first glance easily blend into the dominant cultural group, early on I found myself losing the bits of my identity that I tie to my family instilled values and upbringing.
Find your friends
My first few days in Cork were a bit nerve-wracking at first, but thanks to IFSA’s orientation program, I was surrounded by people who were going through the same transition into a foreign country, a new college, a new city. Then once you’ve gotten comfortable enough with your fellow program students, it is time for University visiting students’ orientation. Regardless of how boring the events or lectures seem, go to them. Even as I lamented the sleep loss due to jetlag, I attended events and I wandered around signing up for every imaginable society or club. In this way, I had the opportunity to talk to a bunch of people and find people with whom I had common interests, and in a University with 20,000 students, there is plenty of opportunity to find people who are like you, without having to pretend to be someone that you are not. Find the people who you can be honest with you even if can hurt you because those are the people you will learn the most from and whom you can rely on.
Find Your Place
One of the things that immediately made me feel at home in Cork was discovering the abundance of historic buildings, sites and landmarks within walking distance. When I needed to think I always had a place to go before studying abroad; however, arriving in Cork I was in entirely new territory and I had no idea where anything was. The first place I found that I could use as a landmark to get anywhere was Elizabeth Fort, and this grounded me. I became particularly fond of Elizabeth Fort. After falling in love with the view from the walls of the fort, I realized that I had found my place.
Reflect on your experiences
For a while I was lost in Cork, I didn’t know if I wanted to use my semester abroad to explore the city and country I had come to or to follow the lead of others I knew in order to explore Europe and become closer to people who I wanted to like me. At first, I resented when I stuck to my original plan of trying to get to know the people and the culture that I had chosen to visit, I felt like I was missing out on something. After I read about people tying cloth to sacred trees in my folklore class and then saw pieces tied to a fence at the Cliffs of Moher, I realized that Ireland had a lot to offer me. I recognized then that if I wanted to use my study abroad opportunity to find myself, I had a wealth of opportunities in my classes and within Ireland to get to know everything about myself that I needed to explain my identity, choices and values, all the while gaining perspective about the people and places in Ireland.
While you’ll probably notice some differences in your behaviors and actions when studying abroad that doesn’t mean that you have to lose your identity to fit into this new environment.
Kiely Goss is a Psychology Major and Elementary Education Certificate Candidate at Connecticut College and studied abroad with IFSA at University College Cork, in Ireland during the Spring 2018 semester. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study Program.