Study Abroad

Alumni Stories -- Joe O'Brien ('14)

My time studying in Ireland gave me the opportunity to experience a multitude of wonderful and fantastic places, cultures, and ideologies. However, there are two moments more than any others that resonate with me and remain poignant nearly a year later.

I studied abroad at the Burren College of Art. The college itself was composed of about 25 students, and situated in the relatively remote town of Ballyvaughan (with a population of 400). From the house that I lived in, it was a half mile walk to and from the college each day, and about one and a half miles in to town. If I wanted to travel beyond the village, that meant catching either the 8:30 a.m. Or 1:30 p.m. coach bus to Galway, an hour's ride away.

The first moment that struck me occurred about halfway through my time abroad as I was walking home one evening around eleven o'clock. At first it was a passing thought, but the more I turned it over in my head the more significant it became to me. This was the first time I really started to consider Ireland home, it was a subtle yet distinct shift in my thought process. I no longer thought of the house I lived in as “Connolly House” but rather as home, and my flatmates became more family to me than friends. I had stopped feeling that I was studying or staying in Ballyvaughan, but rather that I was living in Ballyvaughan. This was the moment when I really began to understand what it meant to study abroad. The significance of my time abroad no longer rested on seeing the Cliffs of Moher, going out to the clubs in London, or taking a Black Taxi tour in Belfast. Now in no way am I saying these weren't immensely enjoyable events, but these aren't the memories I keep dearest. My favorite memories of Ireland are those that were my everyday experiences; picking blackberries off the bushes for breakfast on the way to school, going into Ballyvaughan for the dances at Logues, or the Trads at Greene's, and staying up the late nights in the studio when everyone's burnt out but you all keep working because that's what each of us came here to do. These are the memories that I'll keep from my time abroad, the people I was closest to and the places that became more familiar than I'd ever imagined they'd be.

The other moment that really resonates with me occurred just as I was leaving Ballyvaughan to come back to the States. I was on the 1:30 coach to Galway, where I'd be catching another to Dublin, then a flight in the morning to New York and a connection to Chicago. It was raining (as it has a habit of doing over there) and as we were riding out past the edge of town I realized a couple things at the same moment: This would be neither my last time in Ballyvaughan nor Ireland, and that I had been changed by my time abroad. I don't mean that my time abroad had taught me about Irish culture, that my studio practice was better for it, or that I'd made friends that'll last a lifetime (though all those things hold true). More so it was that I was made different by my time abroad. I didn't know quite how to describe it then, and I still don't today. All I can say is somewhere between August and December I was changed, and it was for the better.Now I'm looking into graduate programs abroad. For me, and many others I've talked to, it isn't so much a matter of if we'll go abroad again, it's more a matter of when. If you haven't studied abroad, do it. Traveling isn't cheap, but study abroad makes it affordable. When you do go abroad, commit to it. Seek out the places and people that suit you best and let the culture absorb you. Leave your expectations stateside. Your time abroad won't be what you think it will, but embrace that unknown quality of it. It's rare to get a chance to go abroad for four months with as few worries as you'll have as an undergraduate. There's no promise you'll ever get another chance like this.

Joe O'Brien
IWU 2014
IFSA Butler Ireland 2012