A Year of Migration across Walls

A year ago today, I had the honor of serving as the student commencement speaker at my graduation from the University of Scranton (29:00 minutes in), after which I saw my year as a Mitchell Scholar begin. In this speech on the tension between walls and migrations, I built off of my Mitchell application and the vision I had for studying in Ireland, a land which has seen its history defined by such a tension – a history we explored as a Mitchell family at the EPIC museum in Dublin and walking along the walls in Belfast; one of the memorable lines from my address was this: that the world needs less people who live to succeed and more people who succeed at living. I could not have found such wonderful people who fulfill this criteria than my fellow Class of 2017 Mitchells.

As I explored the Wicklow Mountains the other day on a gorgeous Irish summer day (quite rare so far), I came across a trail-head sign delineating the possible hikes for the day. One word – hillwalker -caught my attention. In my biodiversity and conservation class, we had come across lawsuits regarding hillwalkers, people who hiked off the beaten path, trailblazers, renegades, or simply Dubliners with an adventurous spirit, who would often hike across the farmland and sheep-land of many on their excursions – no walls impeded their paths. The courts often would side with hill walkers; a similar experience occurred while I was in the English countryside visiting friends the other month, where I learned that farmland had to be kept open for hikers.

Hiking in the Wicklow Mountains.

In Ireland, ownership of the land has always been a tension, as the Imperial British would often take land from the Catholics and/or divide it to lessen the landholdings of the Irish. Their still remains a conscious tie to the land for the Irish and its importance, and the example of the hill-walkers reveals how the Irish have sought to tear down walls of oppression or physical barriers to their culture since Independence. Tied into this history of walls of oppression, the Irish have the memory of repeated emigrations and migrations.

Migration, has, to me always been about growth and peace. Seeking a better life, dialogue with one’s neighbor, and building bridges, not walls. The island of Ireland’s history is a history of migration. To witness first hand the progress that has been made in the North since George Mitchell’s work in bringing about the Good Friday agreement has been astounding; so to has the response of Northern Irish and Irish alike in working to ensure that no hard border – no wall –  is produced from Brexit, but rather a flow of ideas, peoples, and culture continues across the border: a migration.

Coming back to America will be a migration for me, a full circle of a year, but I know that I will be proud to consider myself among the ranks of Mitchell Scholars: people who have found a passion to bring about positive change in the world through the reduction of barriers and the promotion of leadership, exchange, and peace.

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A Heart Full of Gratitude

“The days are long, but the years are short,” goes the saying—referring to the paradoxical way in which individual days can seem slow and busy while months and years seem to whizz by. And, indeed, it rings all too true as I approach the end of my Mitchell year and begin to reflect on these rather extraordinary nine months in Ireland and this marvelous privilege to study for an M.A. in philosophy on the George J. Mitchell Scholarship. I cannot help but be overwhelmed with gratitude to the U.S.-Ireland Alliance, Maynooth University, the advisors I had at Duke, and many others for their efforts to make possible my time in Ireland. I also cannot help but be moved by how much has happened this past academic year—how much I saw and experienced, how much I grew, and how much I learned about myself, this great country, and my studies. To be sure, there were many long days (and several surely remain as I work to complete my dissertation), but they have all borne much fruit.

I came to Ireland in September eager to live in a new country and immerse myself in its culture and history; to dive more deeply into areas in philosophy that I had not previously studied; to meet new people and make new friends; and to emerge with clarity about what I wanted to do in the future. This was the first occasion in which I had ever really “started from scratch,” embarking on a new stage of life in an entirely new place, and that required trust—trust in the Mitchell Scholarship, trust in my program and professors at Maynooth, trust in myself, and, above all, trust in God, that amidst the variety of challenges and hiccups that one invariably encounters in life (and thankfully, those challenges have been, for the most part, small), I would be sustained by grace and ever-presented with opportunities for growth in virtue and the spiritual life.

In fact, the more I reflect on this year and how it came to be, the more clearly and beautifully I see the workings of Divine Providence. Heading into the fall of 2015, my senior year of college at Duke, I realized that I wanted to study for a Master’s in either philosophy or theology to ground myself intellectually and spiritually before moving onto other endeavors, perhaps law school, the private sector, or the world of academia. Yet, at the same time, I began to sense in the silence of prayer the stirrings of an invitation to the priesthood and religious life—stirrings to which I was at the time not at all interested in paying attention! But, as it “just so happened,” I ended up being awarded the Mitchell Scholarship (which, at least in my case, involved plenty of good fortune) to study in Ireland for a one-year M.A. in philosophy of religion at the one university that “just so happened” to be across the street from Ireland’s national seminary—a detail I did not consider when I first applied to the Scholarship. Within a few days of arriving in Maynooth, I had a meeting with my thesis advisor (in the philosophy department, which is separate from the seminary) that ran late, and it “just so happened” that a seminarian was scheduled to meet with her next. She warmly introduced us, and he ended up becoming a best friend.

In short order, and at my newfound friend’s invitation, I was heading over to the seminary in the mornings and evenings for the Liturgy of the Hours, Mass, and the common rosary, as I mentioned in my first blog back in November. All the while, those stirrings felt back in the fall of 2015 developed significantly, and my love for my studies, my love for the fraternal life of the seminary, and my love for the Mass and common prayer began to coalesce into a deep desire for the religious life—and especially that of the Dominican Order (the Order of Preachers), whose charism is precisely those three things: common prayer and reverent liturgy, study, and Christian fraternity, all of which conduce to rich apostolic preaching.

Then, at the start of the spring semester, it “just so happened” that a lay Dominican began a yearlong teaching post in the philosophy department at Maynooth to fill in for a professor who went on sabbatical on short notice. That Dominican tertiary taught me in a course on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, who was a 13th-century Dominican priest and is one of greatest, if not the greatest, philosopher-theologians in the 2,000-year history of the Church. Given my deepened enthusiasm for the Dominican life and intellectual tradition—combined with my getting to know throughout the year the Irish Dominican friars, especially at their house of studies in Dublin—I ultimately decided that it was time for me to “take the plunge” and apply to the Dominican friars of the Eastern Province of the United States. I am grateful and honored to share that I will head to Cincinnati, OH in late July to begin the novitiate year, which is the first step on the way to becoming a Dominican brother and a Priest of Jesus Christ.

As I look back on all of this, I am left in a posture of complete humility and awe. Of course, things did not “have” to work out this way, and it certainly is not as if I had no choice in these matters or as if God could not have worked through other intermediate causes to nudge me to this point of entering religious life. But the beautiful reality is that, in the circumstances that “just so happened” to present themselves, I was able to make, with the help of grace, free choices that led me, step by step, grace by grace, to arriving at a deep and abiding clarity that I should enter the religious life and that I should act on that conviction now.

Add to that the wide variety of joys that this Mitchell year has provided—from growing in friendship with and being intellectually challenged by my fellow Mitchell Scholars to connecting with the greater Maynooth community and immersing myself in Ireland’s rich cultural and historical heritage to traveling to various locations within the island and on the greater continent. Truly, it has all been one incredible experience. I will forever cherish this year, this island, the Mitchell Scholarship, and their profound collective impact on my life. Go raibh maith agat, Dia Leat! (Thank you, and God bless!)

A shot from a pilgrimage that I made last fall to the Knock shrine with the Dominicans of the Irish Province and 4 Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia (based in Nasvhille, TN).

A photo from after Maynooth’s annual 10K town road race. Only in Ireland do they serve a cuppa tea and soda bread after a race!

My aforementioned friend, the now-Rev. Mr. Gerard Quirke, and I after his ordination to the Sacred Order of Deacons (the final step before priesthood) during a beautiful Mass last Sunday in the College Chapel at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth.

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It’s the climb…

In my younger days I was, perforce, an avid hiker. At my sleep-away camp in New Hampshire, weekly hikes were compulsory, and these were no kiddie trails, but steep daylong treks in the White Mountains. No doubt, the aim was to inculcate in us a lifelong love of hiking. In me it inspired just the opposite.

But the forecast on May 7th was absurdly ideal enough – nothing but sunshine from dawn till dusk, as elusive a phenomenon in Dublin as a decent bagel – that when Megan invited me to join her for a hike in the Wicklow Mountains, I forced myself to accept.

Had I Googled Sugar Loaf mountain in advance I might have done otherwise. A thirty minutes’ drive from the city center, it shoots up out of the ground like a craggy pointed hat: cruelly precipitous, equal parts mud and shale. Halfway up, muscles moaning in protest, I tried to recall the strategy that had served my younger self: keep your eyes glued to the ground, lean far enough forward that the gravitational pull of your backpack supports upward movement, distract yourself by making conversation (dwindling lung capacity be damned).

The view from Sugar Loaf.

I didn’t expect to feel anything at the top apart from relief. But when we reached the summit, I found myself, to my surprise, instantly and profoundly awestruck. In the twenty minutes I’d spent with my eyes cast resolutely downward, I’d accumulated beneath me a stunning 360 view of Dublin and Wicklow. I marveled to see the Counties sprawled before me, a verdant checkerboard of greens, yellows and browns, as idyllic geometrically as the day was meteorologically.

The fulfillment that view afforded was enough to make me truly excited for a second hike up Montpelier Hill – colloquially known as Hell Fire. Fortunately for my calves, this ascent was much briefer. Barely ten minutes after scoring a choice spot in the car lot, the trail plateaued, and we were faced with the structure for which the hill is nicknamed: The Hell Fire Club. A decrepit former hunting lodge, the Club has looked out over Montpelier Hill since 1725, and in that time has garnered fame and infamy on account of Club members’ rumored occult practices.

The Hell Fire Club (Courtesy Wikipedia).

That day we were among the Club’s oldest explorers. Legions of kids darted in and out of the ruins, while their parents rested on the lawn. I was in it for the shade; it was the first time all year I felt too hot in Ireland, and the Club’s stone edifice offered plenty of natural air-conditioning. Peering out over the hill, palms pressed against the cool, porous walls, I felt more connected with the land beneath my feet – usually concealed by a layer of concrete or cobblestones – than I had all year. I don’t have much time left in Dublin, but I hope that in my remaining months here, I can unglue myself more frequently from the city, and ascend to more new heights.

 

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Gratitude

 

All smiles and full of gratitude for a wonderful year.

As the weather has turned brighter and warmer—not necessarily drier—I’ve had more opportunities to explore this city that I’ve come to love calling home. Last weekend, I took a long stroll through Fitzgerald Park along the Lee and was struck by a profound feeling of gratitude for this place, my time here, and those who have made it possible.

My time in Ireland has been formative in many ways for which I had hoped, and for others that were more elusive during my initial months on the island. The remark was made by a fellow Mitchell early in the year that Cork seemed like a crockpot—it has lots of good ingredients, and when it has time to stew, it creates a wonderfully-delectable meal. After nine months with the crockpot set to high heat, I’m starting to enjoy the treat.

The most important component of this meal has been the relationships I’ve made here. Whether through shared travel or conversation, my time in Ireland has fostered deep friendships that I know will last beyond my time here on the island.

Engaging this place on such an intimate level has been another gift of the year. Living amidst the Irish milieu has encouraged me to confront challenging issues inherent to the Irish context—mores of belonging and community in a rapidly changing society, efforts to work for justice and equality informed by a national history replete with systemic oppression, and the duties a state has to its young people—that have helped me reflect critically on my own beliefs as an American. They will surely color and enliven my work once I return.

I’m also quite thankful for encountering the craic, or perhaps better yet, the Irish custom of generally being chill. To sit for two hours in conversation with a friend down at the local over a pint of Murphy’s or Guinness isn’t lost time and it doesn’t need to be planned—it’s friendship and it should happen on a whim. Things will get done, but maybe not in the next ten minutes. Some business hours are broadly defined. The schedule is often not quite helpful in determining when a bus will actually arrive—or the national bus system just shuts down for almost three weeks and few people seem to care. These are not necessarily American traits, but they can be quite valuable ones at times! Things move at a different pace here. I was frustrated by all this at first. Nine months of slow acculturation, however, have encouraged me to take a step back, chill out a bit, and enjoy the good times.

Through new friends and many memories, Ireland will always have a place in my heart. For that, I am most grateful. Thank you.

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Beginnings + Endings

As classes wound down in April, it felt like things were speeding up. One of the main benefits of my Mitchell year has been my proximity to all of the medieval material I’ve studied in Ireland and around Europe, and spending less time in class allowed me to get out and see things I’d pored over online or in textbooks. After presenting a paper at the University of Oxford’s annual postgraduate conference, I spent a few days at the British Museum and British Library, which brought the past year full circle: at the museum, I saw the moai Hoa Hakananai’a, which I’d studied alongside Rapa Nui high schoolers before arriving in Ireland, and at the library, I was able to see some of the collection’s famous Insular manuscripts before meeting with its curator, who happens to be a member of my sorority. As I set off for Palermo in a couple of days to work on my dissertation research, I’m grateful to have the rest of the summer to visit places with such resources in addition to exploring Ireland.

I spent my study week in Galway with Carla, where we enjoyed the city’s festivals for food and theatre, and I toured the Burren, Connemara, and Inishmore. Chris and I took a day trip to Waterford, which is of course known for its crystal… but should receive equal attention for its collection of late medieval vestments! Killarney and Abbeyfeale are the priorities among the places I have left to see, as that’s where some of my great-great-grandparents, the Dillons and O’Sheas, left when they set off for the United States.

Back in Dublin, I was able to see “Waiting for Godot” at the Abbey with Byron and Megan, thus accomplishing one of my major Mitchell year goals (all thanks to Bill Shipsey!). The experience was made all the more memorable because we ran into Nick Johnson, a 2005 Mitchell scholar/fellow Northwestern alumnus/Trinity drama professor, after the play. In addition to receiving a short lesson on Beckett, the conversation helped me reflect on my year and all that I have left to do, like observing Bloomsday on June 16, among other things. In the meantime, I’ve had a few more meetings with the Undergraduate Awards team and their board, discussing different ways to encourage student involvement in the awards and their travel to Ireland. They connected me with Trinity’s international marketing team, and though we laughed that we were only just meeting at the end of the academic year, it was an ideal time to recollect my experiences here, and remember what brought me to Dublin in the first place. Luckily, I should have plenty of opportunities to stay connected to Trinity long after I leave Ireland, thanks to their new joint degree program with Columbia University, where I’ll begin my PhD this September.

In between moments like these, I’ve valued the quieter times spent in my room on campus, as I prepared to present my dissertation or got to know my floormates a little better before they moved out at the end of the term. While most of our interactions throughout the year consisted of small talk in the kitchen between classes or assignments, we bonded a bit more as the semester slowed down, and I’ll be happy to have familiar faces nearby (and a place to stay!) when I return for graduation.

I’ll end with some photos of Inishmore, the newest addition to my list of favorite places. (Also pictured: some of the best weather I’ve ever experienced in Ireland.)

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Lessons from my year in Galway

About a year ago, I was beginning to plan my time in Ireland (where I would live, when I would arrive, who would I live with, etc..) and imagining what my life here would be like. I kept thinking about my academic program and what I would learn while pursuing my Master’s degree. When daydreaming about the year ahead, I knew that the experience of living abroad would teach me a lot, but thought I would learn the most in the classroom. I certainly have learned a lot over the past year, but not just from the classroom. I would therefore like to take my last blog entry to reflect on what I have learned about life and myself this year.

  1. I don’t need classrooms and books to learn. Although I’ve learned a lot during my time in class and in lab for my Master’s degree, I feel that I’ve learned much much more outside of the classroom. From exploring Ireland, getting to know my fellow scholars, and learning more about myself, I have learned an immense amount this year.
  2. I’m a much happier and healthier person when I cook properly (thank you for teaching me how to cook well Azza <3) and have a regular exercise routine (e.g. gymming at NUIG’s Kingfisher gym, biking and running along the salthill prom, and the occasional swim in galway bay).
  3. Living near the water is immensely therapeutic. Nothing beats biking home from class or lab along the bike paths lining river corrib to end up at our apartment on Galway Harbor.
  4. Penney’s is the best store ever. ‘Nuff said.
  5. Being physically distant from loved ones doesn’t mean being emotionally distant. Modern technology makes being across the atlantic from loved ones so much easier.
  6. Home isn’t one physical place. Although I was certainly homesick at times, my life in Galway and my amazing Mitchell roommate Azza showed me I can make a home anywhere in the world.
  7. The Mitchell community will always be there for each other. Although I felt isolated at times in Galway away from the majority of Mitchell’s in Dublin, I was constantly amazed by the instant re-connection that happened when Azza and I would meet up with our fellow scholars after not seeing them for weeks or months.
  8. The world really isn’t that big. Traveling back to the States 7+ times for medical school interviews made me realize that Ireland/Europe really is a hop, skip, and jump away from the US.
  9. The sun will always come out, eventually. The winter in Ireland was long, dark, and rainy. But now that summer is upon us, I’m realizing that having some rainy days makes you appreciate the sunny days that much more.

Overall, I’ve had an amazing year in Ireland. I’ve not only learned about regenerative medicine from my Master’s, but I’ve also learned an immense amount about myself, my fellow Mitchell Scholars, and life in general. I’m sad that the year is drawing to a close, but am very excited to experience summer in Galway and see what the next chapter of my life has to bring.

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An Ending, Sure, But a Cliffhanger that Promises a Sequel

Catching the surf in Donegal

My heart cleaves writing my last blog as a Mitchell Scholar. On one hand, being forced to look back over this year and all of the memories I’ve made in Ireland makes my stomach sink: does it all have to end? On the other hand, I know well that I have grown so much from the experience in a multitude of ways, and I feel privileged to join the ranks of Mitchell Alumni and the diverse, ambitious lives they’ve led since finishing their time in Ireland.

For many of my (younger, hipper) co-Mitchells this year, part of the experience has been to figure out what those paths might look like, whether in academia or the working world. I’m a little more set in my ways, and have one more year of medical school to go before starting a pediatrics residency. Perhaps it was because I am already on this fairly fixed career path that I felt free to try new things both in my master’s and beyond. Whatever the reason, I am a firm believer in Mitchell Magic, and that I have emerged from this year more curious about the world and willing to take risks in it than I ever have been. I certainly have a lot of new friends’ kinfolk to look up all over the US this summer.

I already know how I will miss the Guinness (obvious) and the burritos (less-so), the nights talking about politics in pubs (I, the American-in-residence expected always to have a “hot take”) and the mornings sipping coffee talking about the night before (“breakfast for buttons” at Fallon & Byrne, future Mitchells!). I’ll long for the accents and my favorite phrases, and do my best to use them honorably back home (the phrases, not the accents). After a year of scurrying south to Wexford, north to Antrim, and west to Kerry and Donegal, there is still so much to see when I return. So, while this may be my last few weeks in Ireland as a Mitchell, I know that this year has indeed built a connection that will be lifelong. Knowing this makes it a little easier to welcome the Class of 2018 Mitchell Class. Cead mile failte!

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Close Traveling in Ireland

Coming from a rural area in Maine and moving to Ireland has been shocking at times, but what has shocked me the most is the size of Ireland. Ireland is roughly the size of the state of Indiana and fits into the state of Texas about 8 times. It is an 7.5 hour drive from top to bottom and a 2.5 hour drive right across the middle. For someone such as myself who had to drive 30 minutes just to pick up milk or get gas, this is extremely small. The best part about it is how easy it is to travel from place to place.

Ireland has a well functioning public transit system. You don’t need to own a car to get around and see things. There are regular trains, buses, and trams to almost every corner of Ireland and great infrastructure for seeing the more well known sights such as the Cliffs of Moher and Killarney Castle. It is also easy to get off the beaten path even if you are reliant on public transit for the trip home. Some of my best day trips have been on the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) which is the commuter train along the east coast of Dublin.

You don’t have to go far along the DART to see new places. Most stops are only 10 minutes apart, but each has its own separate atmosphere. My favorite weekend trips have been walking along the coast from one DART station to the next. I did the walk from Bray to Greystones with fellow Mitchell Micaela Connery (photo below) and recently did a day trip by myself walking from Dalkey to Killiney (photo below). Howth on the North side of Dublin is also a great city getaway.

In Maine and other parts of the US it would be very hard to function without a car and there is a new level of independence and experiences that come with getting your license. In a year here, without a car, I have been able to see many parts of Ireland and some of them in just a day. It has been rewarding to be in a place where you can live in the heart of a city and be outside in the country side in a short 30 minute train ride. This is a luxury I surely won’t have once I return and has really highlighted my time here.

Walk from Bray to Greystones

Walk from Bray to Greystones

South End View from Dalkey Hill

North End View from Dalkey Hill

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A Worldly Year

Yesterday, I went to Mass celebrated by a Polish priest, ate an amazing Indian curry with some Irish classmates for lunch, and jigged to traditional music at my favorite pub with a French friend. Today, the Hungarian trainer at my gym nearly brought me to tears via hundreds of squats, but a warm cappuccino served by the Australian barista at Dublin’s best coffee shop, 3fe, subsequently soothed my aching body. And these have been normal days in Dublin!

When I was accepted into the Mitchell Scholarship program over a year ago, I could never have predicted the truly international perspective I would gain from living in Ireland. I expected to be enriched by Irish culture, constantly surrounded by Yeats quotes and historical narratives of the famine and the struggle for independence. But I must admit that I did not expect to be so enriched by a myriad of other cultures as well.

I am still proud to say that after nine months of living here I understand the Irish psyche a little bit better. Turns out, for instance, that Irish culture cannot be summarized by a reverence for Saint Patrick’s Day and an obsession with the white potato (as my Irish-American family led me to believe growing up). But beyond being able to provide directions to tourists like a true Dub and take part in the ‘mighty craic’ (good fun) of local social life, I am undoubtedly more aware of and fascinated with cultures from around the world from my year here.

Though my courses on International Development has certainly broadened my formal knowledge of the world, I have learned so much outside of the classroom regarding the diversity of perspectives and experiences which make up the international community. I am not, and would never claim to be, an expert in any one culture as I have discovered how impossible of a task that is. By listening to the stories of individual people from Ireland and elsewhere, it is so clear to me now that the depth of each country and culture could never be easily summarized. And although I would love to describe Irish culture in a pithy albeit all-encompassing way, I have finally given up that goal in hopes of taking every opportunity to continue to develop my global awareness and cultural sensitivity.

I never thought living in Ireland would teach me so much about the world, or even how to approach the world – but it has. When I graduated from college exactly a year ago, I thought the Mitchell sounded like a great way to have fun while earning a Master’s. I am so happy to say that my year has proven to be so much more that, but trying to describe it adequately – just like trying to describe the Irish or the French – would be impossible. My understanding of and compassion for people has certainly increased, though, and I will always be grateful for that.

Now, pictures of me enjoying myself and learning from people!

 

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An Irish Quote

“I can be perfectly happy by myself. With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?”  — Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

  

A little over a year ago I bought a journal in The Coop in Harvard Square, one I’ve carried with me this entire year. 

I’ve kept a journal, in bits and pieces, for as long as I can remember.  But, I’ve only written with true consistently over the last three years.  My keeping a regular journal began, funnily enough, on my first trip to Ireland.  I spent four weeks traveling around the country in 2014.  I began my visit with a six day stay in a hermitage in Glendalough (perhaps, a less than typical Irish tourist activity) where I spent lots of time hiking, reflecting, praying, and journaling.

The journal I carry today is a simple black hardcover, with metallic page edges.  The front has cursive writing in gold embossing that reads: “With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?”  I picked the journal because of the phrase.  I thought it could be a constant reminder of the importance of gratitude, living in the moment, and choosing joy.

Only just last week did I realize this quote came from a literary figure, memorialized forever in a Stephen’s Green sculpture, Oscar Wilde.  Little did I know, for the last year, I’d been carrying the wisdom of an Irish writer.

It’s symbolic that I realized this link as I prepare for my final two months on the island of Ireland.  It’s a serendipitous reminder of all the wisdom I’ve gathered from this special place — consciously and unconsciously.  My first trip here years ago was an important and valuable inflection point in the middle of my twenties.  This year as a Mitchell Scholar (coinciding with the year I turned 30!) was a period of growth and discovery that I’ll carry with me for a lifetime.

I learned the value of time alone, experiencing the immeasurable beauty of solitude in quiet afternoons in Dublin churches and long hikes in the Wicklow Mountains.  I found great craic with strangers in pubs on rainy evenings in the countryside and with new lifelong friends in Dublin bars, friends who were strangers only months before.  I pushed past what I thought was possible through the Connemarathon and hours of excel financial models.  I surprised myself singing Buffalo Springfield in a local Blackrock session, joining an MBA World Cup rugby team, and taking last-minute adventures. I found God in churches and monasteries, mountaintops and seasides, in adoptive Irish parents and new friendships.  I realized getting lost was usually the best way to find what you were looking for, tea and homemade bread really can turn any day around, and being in a rush is generally unnecessary while being nice universally is.

Mostly, I embraced the fact that life isn’t linear.  Instead, it’s as circuitous — speckled with unexpected stops and turns — as an Irish road-trip.  And, that’s a good thing.

A year in Ireland. Who could not be happy? Who could not be grateful?

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My Experience in Mozambique

My life has changed remarkably since my Mitchell year eight years ago. I am still living abroad, but serving in a much different capacity. In January 2015, I became a U.S. Navy Foreign Area Officer (FAO) with a focus on Africa. In other words, I am now an African cultural and linguistic specialist (I speak French and Portuguese) whose mission is to carry out U.S. military programs in partnership with foreign militaries. I have been stationed at the US Embassy in Mozambique for just over one and a half years, where I have gained a much better understanding of the nuances of security cooperation as well as of Mozambican culture and the Portuguese language. I learn new things every day, which keeps my brain engaged and reminds me of my Mitchell year.

I have had the opportunity to travel throughout Mozambique, making it to 9 of the 11 provinces in the country during my first year alone. Some of the highlights have been getting to visit Niassa National Reserve in Northern Mozambique on the Tanzanian border– a beautiful, remote, and (relatively) ungoverned park the size of Switzerland. Niassa is home to the largest concentration of elephants in Mozambique, whose population has decreased over 50% in the last five years due to poaching.  Currently, there are only about 150 park rangers with limited equipment and authorities to address the problem in the entire reserve. It is a daunting task to say the least.

USAID and the Department of State have partnered with the Mozambican government as well as Wildlife Conservation Society to address and prevent further poaching as well as the trafficking of precious minerals, illegal timber, and people. The US Department of Defense was given expanded authorities to counter illicit trafficking, so my office has been working in concert with our interagency colleagues to find potential opportunities for DoD to provide training support to the park rangers.  Additionally, the US Embassy has been working with various stakeholders (NGO’s and agencies within the Mozambican government) towards creating a solution to address this crisis. It has been fascinating to learn how poachers operate as well as how all of the stakeholders interact and are involved in trying to solve this major problem.

A significant part of my portfolio is working to counter the epidemic of HIV/AIDS in Mozambique, specifically within the military. The prevalence rate is 11% in the country and 20% in Maputo City, where I live. Our HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment program, part of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), is the second largest DoD PEPFAR program in the world with a budget of nearly $8 million. As such, I have had the opportunity to travel to several military bases around Maputo and in northern cities (Beira, Nampula, and Tete) to ensure that standards are being met for program implementation.

Interestingly, a large portion of our prevention program is dedicated to voluntary male medical circumcision, which reduces the likelihood of HIV infection by over 60%.  My knowledge of public health and HIV has grown tremendously. It is always incredibly enlightening to travel outside of the capital city of Maputo (a “bubble” of 2 million people in the southernmost part of the country) and see how the majority of the population (24 million) really lives and the challenges that they face.

As a Naval Officer, a lot of my work has also focused on building capacity within the Mozambican Navy. The US has donated equipment (small boats, equipment for maritime operations centers, trucks) to strengthen the Mozambican Navy’s ability to carry out operations along its coastline of 2,470km, literally the length of the east coast of the United States (!). My office implements training programs that promote both partnership and an exchange of ideas by both bringing U.S. trainers to Mozambique as well as sending Mozambican military officers to attend U.S. professional development courses. We also send Mozambican representatives to regional conferences focused on key security issues. I had the good fortune to accompany the Mozambican Admiral of the Navy to a seminar in Mauritius this past year to discuss maritime security policy issues with key military leaders in Southern Africa. What an incredible opportunity for me, a junior FAO, to interact with senior-level officers using both my French and Portuguese!

Also of note, a large portion of our program focuses on English-language training. Mozambique is a Portuguese-speaking “island” in Southern Africa; every one of its six neighbors’ primary language is English.  In order to increase interoperability with neighboring militaries and to potentially participate in peacekeeping operations, Mozambican military members must learn English.  As such, in line with Mozambican Armed Forces requests, the US has donated several language labs throughout the country as well as trained English-language instructors within the Mozambican Armed Forces every year. As other Embassies with a major presence in Mozambique do not speak English as their primary language, this is a real niche training need for the Mozambicans that the U.S. Embassy is able to fill.

My life is Mozambique has not been all work though. I have been fortunate to travel within the country for pleasure as well, which has been incredible. Visiting Gorongosa National Park in central Mozambique was a really special experience. PBS did a special two years ago about the re-birth of the park.  Mozambique suffered through a sixteen-year civil war after independence from Portugal in 1975; subsequently, the animal and human population in and around the park was devastated. Over the last decade, serious efforts by American entrepreneur Greg Carr’s foundation as well as USAID and other entities have made incredible progress in re-populating the park. More information is available here:  http://www.pbs.org/gorongosa/home/ .

The beaches in Mozambique are also of note as many are not over- commercialized. In some places, one feels like the only person to have ever been there. Thousands of South Africans cross the border to Mozambique during the holidays to visit the beach, and once one has visited any of these destinations, it is easy to understand why. I loved visiting Tofo, Vilankulos, Bilene, Lake Niassa, and Inhambane.  The Daily Mail recently published an article about how Mozambique has some of the best beaches in the world: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travelsupplement/article-4236990/Mozambique-Africa-s-new-Riviera.html

I feel very fortunate to have had such great experiences here in Maputo over the last year and a half. I’m looking forward to even more exciting adventures in 2017 and 2018.

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Nearing the End

As I write this third blog post of my Mitchell year – seven months into an experience which I still find unbelievable – I cannot help but get a little sentimental. I have one more month of classes until I finish the formal portion of my Master’s degree in International Development and then only a few arduous weeks of dissertation-writing after that. Before I know it, I’ll be passing the baton off to the next cohort of truly impressive minds and joining the reputable ranks of more than a decade’s worth of former Mitchell scholars. It is crazy to think that one year ago I was anxiously waiting to graduate from the Military Academy and move to Dublin, and since then I’ve seen so many places, met so many people, and challenged my perspectives and opinions in so many wonderful ways.

So as the days grow a little bit longer and the wet Dublin winter slowly disappears, I have decided to embrace the nostalgia and sentimentality and approach my remaining time with a sense of leisure and calm (this may sound surprising if you are well acquainted with my gung-ho personality). I have this intense, somewhat aching desire to sprint to the finish and leave no stone unturned (a reflection of all my military training I think), but I see now that the anxiety inevitably induced from trying to squeeze everything and anything into my last few months would be wholly counterproductive. Ireland has already done so much in helping me learn how to relax and just experience, and I genuinely intend to continue to apply this mentality even as the clock ticks.

Thus, I’ve decided that through continued reflection and introspection I am going to focus on gratitude and patience as I finish up my studies in Ireland. I know I will never abandon my belief in the value of discipline and hard work (and I don’t want to either), but the beauty of the Mitchell program is that I have been given the chance to develop my mind and talents in less formal ways. Therefore, focusing on gratitude will help me nest all my amazing experiences into my upcoming military service and the challenges I will surely face, while remaining patient will encourage me to appreciate the here and now with as little anxiety and worry as possible.

So when I walk away from provocative discussions after a class or in between pints, I am not going to limit the time I spend dissecting the various points. I will take the long route to my gym, making sure to pass through the park and over the pond – rain or shine. When my innate desire for efficiency and organization threatens to consume my daily activity, I am going to pull out my favorite articles from my Peace & Intervention class or sift through my favorite pictures of Irish sheep, farms, cliffs, and rainbows. I am going to walk slow, breathe deeply, and continue to work on that Irish accent which I don’t think I will ever actually perfect.

I give everyone permission to hold me accountable to these goals up through the very end.

 

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