An ode to Cream Crackers and Blue Cheese:
Studying Abroad in The Big LD, Northern Ireland
When I set out my goal to study for a semester abroad during my freshman year of college I knew two things for sure: I wanted to study in Ireland, and I wanted my experience to be different. I knew this because I had a very specific reason for wanting to go to Ireland, which was to conduct the field research for my honors thesis. I had been fascinated with Ireland since my junior year of high school and the thought of being able to be on the ground for months doing research enthralled me. I saw no reason to waste my time “finding myself” or travelling carelessly around Europe like many students my age do when they study abroad. I knew who I was, and I knew what I wanted to do, and that wasn’t going to change… at least, I thought it wasn’t. In many ways, my semester in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland did end up being different from what many students experience. But there is a reason study abroad often advertises itself as a life-changing experience—I was no exception to this.
I’m sure anyone who has studied abroad will be able to tell you that it is not always fun, and eventually the reality that you are countless miles from home will set in. For me, reality set in almost as soon as I left. I boarded my plane for Belfast on a Wednesday night in January, and within the next 24 hours, I lost my debit card, got on the wrong bus, and was stranded in the Irish countryside with barely any money or phone battery. It was in those first 24 hours that I was exposed to the hardest parts of being abroad on my own: the loneliness, having very little money, not knowing who to ask or where to go for help. I know this sounds depressing—why would anyone study abroad? My answer to someone asking this question would be that it gets better. I made it out of that horrible situation in one piece, and though it was awful at the time, those events made the rest of my time seem much easier. If I could find a way out of losing my debit card and getting stranded in a foreign country, I could figure out most tough situations.
As I said, it got much better. Some days were tougher than others; homesickness is a very real thing. I didn’t have the money or time to occupy myself with traveling elsewhere in Europe often. But I found pleasure in new routines in Derry. I taught myself to cook, and going to the grocery store was suddenly one of my favorite weekly activities. I found a running club that trained within walking distance of my apartment, and I got to experience the joy of having teammates to compete with and against once again. I only had class on Tuesday’s and Thursday’s, so even though I didn’t have the money to travel other places in Europe, on Friday’s I would often get on a bus and go off to a different part of the island of Ireland to do interviews for my honors thesis research. I made countless new friends with nationalities ranging from Canadian to Moroccan. I even came to enjoy the routine of sitting in my kitchen late at night eating Jacob’s Cream Crackers and blue cheese. There were certainly times when I longed to be back at E&H, but Derry came to offer its own comforts that made it a certainly odd, but no doubt interesting place to live.
Ultimately, as I developed new weekly routines of doing research, running, going to class, grocery shopping, and a number of other tasks, time sped up. Finally, it was May 13th, and I would be leaving Derry the next day. I decided to take a walk along the River Foyle, which runs directly through the center of the city. While I walked, I reminisced about all that I had done in 4 months abroad; running a cross country race through nearly a foot of mud in February; spending 12 hours in my favorite pub with a good friend for no other reason than that we were bored and to say we did it; riding bus number 64 into the Republic of Ireland more times than I can count to do interviews for my research, to surf, or just to take a weekend away. I stopped during my walk while crossing the Peace Bridge, which crosses over the River Foyle and connects both sides of the city. I am not someone who needs to stop and take pictures every second of a journey, but I did pause to get a picture of Derry in this moment. When I had first arrived on the island of Ireland, and countless other times, I wanted nothing more than to leave, and return to the comforts of home. Yet, somewhere along the way, Derry had become a sort of home. When I was preparing to leave initially, I didn’t want to have the typical study abroad experience where I raved about how my life had been changed and I was a better person. When I left in January, I was stubbornly sure that my semester abroad would be nothing more than a business trip; a means to an end. As I stood on the Peace Bridge, at sunset, I took the picture of the city. Months later, as I look at that picture, I know that my semester in Derry wasn't an end in itself, and I will always be thankful for the contribution it has made to shaping my identity.
By: Jackson Feezell '17
*All photos are provided by Jackson Feezell