My Education in Eire - My Family Travels

So you want to travel.  As a young student, you figure studying abroad would be a great way to see the world and get college credit at the same time.  You make an appointment with your university’s study abroad advisor.  He crunches the numbers and slips you a cost breakdown for a semester overseas.  You pass out from sticker shock.  You go home, put a bag of frozen peas on that fresh lump you’re sporting, and try to hatch a plan B. 

This story resonates with a lot of young students today.  I’ve been there myself.  With the economy in the toilet bowl, many of us are giving up our dreams of traveling abroad.  However, studying overseas allows students to utilize federal loans and scholarship money to fund their adventures, whereas the ordinary traveler has to pay his own way.  There are myriad short-term study abroad programs that can give you the experience you want without leaving you chest deep in debt.  Studying overseas during the summer term is a great way to boost your résumé, enhance your education, and experience the world.

In June 2008, I traveled to the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG) to take part in their month-long International Summer School in Irish Studies.  Students can enroll directly with the school but I chose to sign up through Academic Programs International (API), an independent study abroad organization.  There are some great advantages to being a student with a program like API.  Such programs usually devise additional excursions and activities for their students outside of those provided by the school.  For instance, my API on-site director, Fionnghuala, took us to see comedian Des Bishop, as well as Enda Walsh’s play, The New Electric Ballroom, at the Druid Theatre Company.  Our group also enjoyed other activities, such as a bowling night, group dinners, and a day trip to Dublin.  Another perk is that API offers insurance, which can be invaluable when you’re in a foreign country.  During my trip, I developed a terrible sinus infection with an uncontrollable cough.  It was the sickest I’ve ever been and without the insurance API provided me, I couldn’t have afforded a doctor’s visit or my prescriptions.

API’s current quote for the summer program at NUIG is $5,600, which is about one third of the cost of a semester program.  The $5,600 not only covers tuition and housing but medical and life insurance, advising, airport reception, and a cell phone.  The cell phone plan is really fantastic.  All incoming calls, even those from outside of the country, are free.  For those of you with worried parents, this could be a major selling point.  Your parents will sleep a lot better knowing they can contact you easily—and cheaply.

Even though summer study programs are less expensive than semester or year-long programs, they’re still expensive.  Independent organizations like API usually offer scholarships, which is definitely something worth pursuing.  They aren’t as lucrative as scholarships provided for the long-term students but every extra dollar makes a difference in your travels, even if it just means being able to afford a nice souvenir for your baby sister.  Keep in mind that despite these tough economic times, schools are still offering money to students ambitious enough to study in a foreign country.  Be sure to connect with your university’s study abroad director or someone in the financial aid office.  They can tell you what kind of scholarships your school offers and what you need to do to get them.       

Perhaps the best part about studying abroad during the summer is that you take fewer classes, leaving you more time to explore the new world around you.  But don’t be fooled.  Summer school is still school and there will be tests to take and papers to write.  However, in my experience, the professors seem to understand that your time is limited and they’re quite flexible when it comes to international students.  I took two classes at NUIG, Irish Society and Representing Ireland in Literature and Film.  Students were required to write a research paper and take a final exam for each class.  Both of my classes were lecture based but there was a healthy amount of discussion in the classroom, which helped me connect with students outside of API. 

Although my schoolwork kept me busy, I still got to see everything on my list.  The program included excursions to the Aran Islands, Dingle, Dublin, and East County Galway and East County Clare.  Another advantage to traveling with a study abroad organization is that all of these travel arrangements were handled by the program.  For those traveling solo, it’s still easy enough to plan little trips like these on your own.   It seemed like everywhere I went in Galway, there was a shop offering tickets for bus tours to anywhere in Ireland.  On the weekends, the tour buses line the streets and you can simply walk up to a bus driver and buy a ticket.  It’s best to buy your ticket in advance though, especially during tourist season. 

Some fellow students and I booked a tour of the Cliffs of Moher.  For all you movie buffs out there, the Cliffs of Moher are the Cliffs of Insanity in The Princess Bride and are also featured in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.  They’re really incredible to see—well worth the ten euro for the bus tour.  There’s no price of admission for the cliffs but they do accept donations.  The tour also took us to the cliffs of Doolin and the Burren, where we saw Poulnabrone dolmen.  Nine times out of ten, the tours have student discounts.  Whatever school you attend should issue you a student ID card but an ID from your home school should work too.  My NUIG card is written in Gaelic and is probably my favorite souvenir.  If there are no student rates, there should still be cheap prices for groups.

If you want to travel across Ireland without the time constraints of a day tour, you can utilize Bus Éireann.  The buses go all over Ireland and you can book your trip online.  I’m lucky enough to have cousins in Ireland, so after my classes ended, I took a bus from Galway to Tipperary to meet them.  Since many of my classmates were Americans like me (which was the program’s only major drawback) having a chance to stay with Irish people was really fun.  Staying with my relatives gave me the chance to learn about my heritage and to connect with family members I’d never met before.  After staying in Galway City for four weeks, the peacefulness of Tipperary was a welcome change.  The rolling green landscape is absolutely amazing.  Waking up to see a cow grazing outside of your window is pretty cool too, especially if you grew up in the suburbs like me. 

I learned a lot from my family and they seemed to learn a lot from me too, asking questions about every aspect of American life.  This leg of my journey was my favorite because it allowed me to see what life in Ireland is really like.  It also helped me develop a relationship with my cousins.  I still get calls and emails from them, as well as presents every Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day!   I wouldn’t have these relationships if I hadn’t made this trip.  For those without family or friends in another country, I would still recommend home stays when studying abroad.  They don’t usually offer those for summer students, unless the country’s language is not your first.  However, if you get the opportunity, definitely take it.   

After visiting my cousins, I went to Cork.  I used Fodor’s Ireland guide to pick lodgings and attractions I wanted to see.  Cork is a walker-friendly city, so save money by seeing it on foot.  Staying in a hostel is definitely inexpensive but as a woman traveling alone, I chose to stay at the Oakland B&B.  Again, I utilized the bus tours and made a day trip to Blarney Castle to kiss the blarney stone.  Buses to Blarney leave regularly from the Parnell Place station in Cork.  Doing some shopping on St. Patrick’s Street is fun and if you’re a foodie, put English Market on your to-do list.  I think I gained five pounds at the cheese counter alone.  I left Cork for Dublin but was only there for a night or two before heading back home.  Dublin is insanely pricy so if you’re on a budget, don’t plan on staying there too long.  If you’re a bibliophile like me, consider going to the James Joyce Centre and passing by Oscar Wilde’s childhood home on Merrion Square.  There’s a vibrantly colored statue of Wilde across the street, which is good for photo ops.

 If you’re a would-be traveler, I hope you found this useful.  Travel has opened my eyes and filled me with knowledge and self-confidence.  I hope it does the same for you.  Sláinte!


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