Normalized No More: Gaining Perspective from Irish Prisons

The first time I stepped foot on Rikers Island, New York’s main jail complex, was in 2012 for a college course. I was struck by the long bridge, big fences, high walls, and sharp barbed wire. The old, run-down buildings, and loud metal doors made me feel unsettled. I would soon learn that the poor conditions of Rikers reflected the larger issue of mass incarceration in America. With a prison and jail population of 2.3. million, the U.S. leads the world in incarceration and is known for its harsh sentences, punitive policies, and subpar facilities. Fast forward five years, as I continued to work within the criminal justice system and return to Rikers each week as a teacher for adult women and young men, I found that in order to be present at work each day, I subconsciously began to normalize my surroundings and become desensitized to the high walls and bleak environment.

Entrance to Rikers Island, www.usatoday.com

I came to Ireland to gain an international perspective on criminal justice reforms. I expected to learn about policies, procedures, and rehabilitation. However, over the past four months, a much more impactful shift has also started to take place. My experiences working with Irish professionals and visiting jails and prisons are beginning to demonstrate just how much I normalized certain aspects of the American justice system.

This past semester, my juvenile justice class took a trip to Ireland’s new (and only) youth detention facility, Oberstown Children Detention Campus. Unlike the U.S., which detains some juveniles in adult prisons, in Ireland, all detained juveniles are placed in a facility specifically designed for them. Upon reflection, a classmate shared that she felt naive, but was struck by how high the walls were, given that it was designed for children. In that moment, I realized that I had not even taken a real notice to the walls. Our professor sincerely responded that she was not naive to notice this, and we should never stop being shocked by the harsh nature and features of systems designed to incarcerate, punish, and strip individuals of their rights.

 

Entrance to Oberstown Children Detention Campus.  https://www.oberstown.com/

During another visit to Cork’s prison, someone made a comment about how the new floor tiles were too “institutional.” Inappropriately, my first thought was “if only you saw the floors in American jails…” Between these two moments, I realized that working so closely within the conditions of America’s failing justice system had blinded me from noticing all aspects of confinement that display disregard to the individuals who are incarcerated. In order to show up to work and preserve enough emotional energy for my students, I needed to put up blinders to certain conditions around me to get through the day.

While I was home over the holidays, I shared these thoughts with two former colleagues who are still working on Rikers Island. We discussed how easy it is for individuals who work in certain environments to get sucked into a silo and blinded to some conditions while focusing on others. Additionally, it is easy (and understandably so) to fall into the mentality that when working on macro issues such as extreme sentencing, the micro issues, such as the specific infrastructures of jails, take the back seat. However, there is entirely too much at stake to ignore or become numb to any features of the criminal justice system, both large and small, that strip away the humanity of others.

I recognize the urgency of continuing to take this step back, recharging my emotional energy, and learning from a new system here in Ireland, while still having candid discussions with others to help put things in perspective and hold me accountable to keep growing and learning.

Messages about the treatment of prisoners in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Learning about the history of Irish imprisonment at the Kilmainham Goal.

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“So…what’s in it” Transatlantic Packing and Snacking

I never realized how hard it was to describe a snack food by relation to other snack foods until I had to try it not once but twice. December brought with it winter break, Christmas, and the opportunity to head back to the United States to visit my family. Before heading home, I headed to three different stores on a mission to find Irish snacks for my family to try. Lifting my suitcase onto the scale in the Dublin airport, I realized I’d never had to wonder if the weight of the amount of digestives I decided my family would need would push my bag over the weight limit. Luckily for all of them, my bag and I got through just fine. “So…what’s in it? Like, what’s it like,” asked my dad with a skeptical look as he held a bag of Bacon Fries. “Try to imagine like…a Frito maybe, but bacon flavored and shaped and colored like a strip of bacon? Except it isn’t really like a Frito…I don’t know, just try it.” Needless to say, the bacon fries were deemed “powerful.” The one in my family who liked them the most though might just be my older dog, Henry. Digestives went over well all around, and my dad enjoyed “the simplicity” of the candy names which tell him “exactly what he’s in for.” The break was full of everything I needed from home: walks on the beach with my family, laughs over board games, and giant breakfasts from Waffle House.

I flew back to Ireland just before New Year’s Eve, but before I did I found myself wandering around a Walgreen’s snack aisle in hunt for stereotypical American snacks I could bring back for my friend Amy who, after hearing all I was bringing back to the States on the front end of my trip, said she’d like to know about American snacks. The weight of digestives in my bag was quickly replaced by some additional clothes, a Slim-Jim, Chex Mix, a Rice Krispies treat, Sour Patch Straws, and a roll of Hubba Bubba Bubble Tape. “Is it a pepperoni? What’s in it?” Amy looked skeptical of the Slim-Jim after approving of the Chex Mix as “nice.” “Um, I’m not sure that really many people know what’s in them…I guess it’s somewhat like a pepperoni? Or a jerky? But not hard? I don’t know, just try it.” The Slim-Jim wasn’t deemed a favorite – maybe if Amy had a dog, that could have been the biggest fan like Henry was of the Bacon Fry. The Rice Krispies treat was a success at least. After celebrating and ringing in the new year with Amy and friends, I woke up hearing Amy in the kitchen. She popped her head into the sitting room where I’d slept on her couch, “oh good, you’re up. I’m making breakfast now – do you want tea?” White pudding from her hometown and all, Amy made a full Irish breakfast for us to start the new year off right.

Yesterday, while on the Salthill Promenade, I realized that in both North Carolina and Galway I’ve been able to enjoy reflecting while on long walks next to the shore. Going into this new year and new semester, I am beyond grateful to have loved ones on both continents to laugh with, introduce new snacks to, and finish vastly over-portioned breakfasts next to. Turns out sometimes home, whether in the States or Ireland, feels like a full post-breakfast belly laughing and chatting with those who know exactly how you like your coffee and tea and are always open to trying more snacks.

Sunset over the Atlantic in North Carolina

Waffle House (note American bacon…and portions)

Breakfast by Amy (the best way to start 2018)

Sun reflecting off Galway Bay

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Diplomacy – the Irish way

As I approach the midpoint of my year in Ireland, I am both surprised how fast the first half went by and looking forward to all that is to come in 2018.

The “homestretch” of last semester saw me mostly anchored at UCD focusing on papers, projects, and class functions. My favorite course that I took in the fall – The Geopolitics of Brexit – occupied much of that time. Already interested in the consequential UK referendum while studying foreign affairs in college, this unique module deepened my conception of the underpinnings of euroscepticism and the consequences of disintegration. Unique in that the course scrutinized an ongoing event, the structure of the class involved visiting academic experts from around Europe leading an engaged seminar each week. At the end of the course, each project group presented their “Brexit scenario” (i.e.: what we predicted would happen and why, as well as providing recommendations) to a selected panel of policymakers and businessmen.

In my work for this course, among others, I developed a strong respect for Irish diplomacy. My research mostly centered around the complex issue of the Irish border – the most divisive of the three negotiating points during “Phase I” of the UK-EU negotiations. While Westminster paid lip service to avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, no concrete details were provided to reassure Dublin and Brussels. For the Republic of Ireland, the uncertainty created by the situation – and the prospect that their voice would be muted as talks progressed further – was not good enough. A rigid border would greatly disrupt economies on either side and acutely harm Irish farmers. Moreover, the need to sustain a de-militarized border, and thus the sanctity of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement brokered by one Senator George Mitchell, is critical for continued peace between the six counties of the Ulster and the Republic of Ireland.

As such, the Irish government resolved not to let the issue go delayed or de-emphasized any longer. They crystallized their position and sought solidarity from their EU partners. Their persistent diplomacy forced Theresa May’s government to finally dedicate full attention to the border question – and provide concrete reassurance that the border would remain open (in the event that the UK does not settle on a customs arrangement that “fully aligns” with EU rules in the North by their preliminary departure date March of 2019).

A few Mitchell’s with Charge d’affaires Reece Smyth at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence for a Thanksgiving reception – complete with deviled eggs!

The speed with which the Irish built consensus among its 26 EU partners and forced the hand of the UK – all during a domestic political scandal that threatened to take down the Fine Gael government  – should not be undervalued.

The triumph of Irish diplomacy last fall serves as a microcosm of the principled and steadied nature that Irish folks go about their business. They are not bombastic, they are not duplicitous. They are transparent and reasoned. In a world infused with plenty of deception and bluster in the public sphere, world leaders and citizens alike would do well to learn from this small island on Europe’s periphery.

A couple classmates and I talking with Foreign Minister Simon Coveney about Brexit before his first student engagement speech on “The Future of Europe” – at UCD.

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Choral Morals and Healing Harmonies

“The name of this town is written in the imaginations of many,” the monsignor begins. He goes on to tell us about the history of Enniskillen: the residents who fought in World War I, the 1987 bombing, Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 2012. “And now,” he concludes, looking at us, “you’re a part of that.”

What, you might ask, is a Jewish girl from New York City doing at a Saturday night mass in a small town in Northern Ireland?

At the beginning of the school year, I joined Trinity’s Chapel Choir. I initially joined for an opportunity to improve my singing and sight-reading skills, but I have grown to love the choir community. Since we sing music for church services, it has also been a way to learn firsthand about the role of religion in Irish life today. Before this year, I could probably have counted the number of times I had been to a church service on one hand. While I still don’t always understand what goes on in the services we sing in, I have learned to find beauty in them because I share them with my fellow singers.

When my choir announced that we were doing a weekend trip to Enniskillen, I signed up without knowing anything about the town. The conductor told us that we would sing a Saturday night mass at the town’s Catholic church and a Sunday morning mass at the town’s Protestant cathedral. I did not think too much about where we were singing; I was more preoccupied with making sure I knew all the music for both services.

The monsignor gave us a welcome speech before we sang, and it was only then that I realized how much our presence in Enniskillen meant to the people there. The bombing of Enniskillen, as I learned from the monsignor’s speech, marked a turning point in the Troubles and motivated both sides to pursue peace. The town has transformed a painful event into a hopeful future through commemoration and interfaith cooperation. The fact that we sang in both churches in one weekend moved townspeople of both faiths, and the priests in each church eagerly announced to the congregation how special our trip was in this respect. Even though I do not belong to either faith, it was spiritually fulfilling to me that my friends and I could contribute to Enniskillen’s healing process in some small way.

I am left with a lingering curiosity about Northern Ireland, and I look forward to visiting Belfast with my Mitchell class in February for our mid-year retreat. But on a more basic level, I am left with a deeper appreciation for how music brings people from different backgrounds together. I never thought I would find myself in a church in Enniskillen—but I’m so, so glad I did.

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Brotherhood Beyond Borders

I don’t remember first beginning to read, but I do remember years of being unable to stop. Mesmerized by the newfound magic of words, I walked and ate and slept with a book in my hands. My mom would tease me for being so deeply lost in the story, gently reminding me to pause and take note of the living, breathing, ever-changing world that surrounded me.

My first semester as a Mitchell was an echo of that unbridled enthusiasm. Inspired and challenged by my courses, I threw myself into them completely. Having been raised in a postcolonial country, I had come to Ireland hoping for a critical education of international power dynamics. My program exceeded those hopes: the personal colonial history of Ireland provided our conversations with nuance, and afforded other postcolonial states the attention and dignity that I felt they deserved. Again, I found myself mesmerized.

But I am a firm believer in activist scholarship–I find that the lessons we learn academically are most powerful when paired with lived experience. As an undergraduate, I was determined to make my education three dimensional, and I actively sought opportunities that placed my readings in a larger context. As a graduate student, I had planned to do the same, but by the time I looked up from my schoolwork it seemed the semester had already slipped through my fingers.

Determined to make up for lost time, I set out in search of that lived experience. In particular, I was desperate to see Belfast. The Troubles had loomed large over my education in conflict and reconciliation: I read countless articles, heard firsthand accounts, and traced the lines of political murals that were printed in my books. On a personal level, I was struck by the relevance of African experiences to the Republican narrative. Having spent years defending the importance of African independence movements and their leaders, the murals seemed to be an affirmation of the vital mark they had left on the world.

It was from this international framework of conflict that I approached my visit. I mentioned South Africa in particular to a man I met while there. Suddenly enthusiastic, he told me that he had been a political prisoner before the Good Friday Agreement. He expressed how he had been personally inspired by South Africa’s story of resilience and recovery post-apartheid. Wanting to see the new South Africa firsthand, he had saved up and traveled there quite recently. He described meeting ex-political prisoners from the African National Congress, an interaction that was initially stilted but suddenly changed:

“When I mentioned where I came from and what I had been through,

and in that moment, we became brothers.”

My conversation with him and others grounded what I had already witnessed in the classroom: cross-cultural empathy. What I have found in Ireland is a standard of looking beyond national borders and of recognizing the humanity and the dignity of distant others. In the ongoing and necessary effort to make our global order more just, this tendency to recognize supranational commonalities is a powerful example for the wider world.

Without a doubt, I am so glad to have looked up from my book, and I am so grateful to have seen a little more of this living, breathing, ever-changing world.

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Silent “M”s and Silent Nights: an Ode to “oments”

“Where are my international students?”

Unable to escape the subsequent prodding and nudging by the giggling sopranos around me, I warily raise my hand. The director turns his attention to it, unfortunately and apparently the only hand in the room.

“And how did that feel?”

“Well,” I deliberate for a second, and then settle on the most candid version of the truth. “It felt bad.”

The entire choir chuckles.

 

It did. It did feel bad. Like sloshing consonants around in my mouth while trying to add German inflection where German inflection was not asked for. To make matters worse, the hundred people around me seemed to be perfectly comfortable simply accepting silent “M”s. This was startling.  I pondered moral relativism while packing away my sheet music and tying myself together with my scarf.

My first true introduction into the Irish language was singing “Oíche Chiúin” (also known as “Silent Night”) in rehearsal with the Maynooth University Choral Society. As a science-based Master’s student, I was unsure as to whether I could be involved musically at Maynooth. But you can. I can. Spectacularly, anyone can. As the society is open to members of the community, I have had the privilege of simultaneously sitting next to a woman celebrating her 80th year of life, and a woman just beginning her first-year at University.

And oddly, although there is nothing comparable to learning the immaculate lifts and sharing in the four-part, powerful conversation that is Handel’s Messiah, my favorite part about choir is when we all first arrive each week for rehearsal.

In a drafty hall on South Campus, we sit side by side. References to the weather and how are yous and opinions on the new lights by Carton House fill the empty spaces. A cocker spaniel that bewilderingly adores the vet intertwined with a Father Ted anecdote, a new “maths” professor from Wexford, the upcoming Late Late Toy Show, and this week’s heinous second-year music theory assignment weave their ways in and out of conversation. The row of women who sit behind me religiously comment on the comfort level of the chairs. I can’t tell you why, exactly, this is my favorite part, but I can say that it all adds up. These interactions seem passing and fleeting but they somehow seem to foreshadow the togetherness, the meaningful collaboration, to come. I love having the opportunity to be a part of that, in this culture and this place.

 

So, I return home and print out “Ee’ha k’u’in”:  the non-Irish persons way to learn Silent Night (mercifully and phonetically explained by the online Celtic Arts Center). I coerce my fellow Immunology classmates into correcting my pronunciation after tutorials. I get on board with the notion that “mh” is actually a “v” sound. And, after an existential crisis and some internal, ethical debate, I agree to respect the silent “M”.

Our Christmas Concert takes place in the College Chapel. Near the end of the performance, the entire congregation is asked to stand and sing together. There is a moment, when the organ begins to play, and I am overwhelmed by goosebumps and chills because this is Oíche Chiúin, and I know it. And even though I know it differently than so many other people in this room, who have grown up singing it each year, it makes me feel something like a mixture of warmth and belonging. These moments add up. They fill the days, and make weeks, and comprise years, and I love having the opportunity to be a part of this––filling my days with these moments of togetherness, in this Irish place.

the College Chapel at Maynooth University

 

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Trinity Personal Touch

You might have heard that the culmination of the glorious European Master’s degree is christened by the loveliest paper: a thesis. Although I must say that my 20k word requirement was assisted by a relatively easy choice for my thesis advisor. Before starting my course, I spoke with my course director about my research interests. I have to admit that I was nervous whether an interest in social movements, specifically, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement could be appeased in Dublin. After a few minutes, my worries were easily subsided when my jovial professor’s sarcasm surfaced: “Yeah, Donovan. I have never heard of BLM as a sociologist.”

But, what seemed to begin as an above average academic relationship quickly blossomed into more of a friendship. In December, my fingers only typed half the speed of which I could read (#frustrating). 10k words stood between me and the prestigious “Waffle House” franchise back home in South Carolina. Paper topics made things tolerable. For example, I explored the ambivalence of the Israeli/Palestinian debate, the dream of post-racialism, and the pervasiveness of civil society. Rough drafts seemed sufficient as I boarded the plane for the holidays.

However, editing my papers was sidestepped by the most fascinating black ideological debate of this decade: Tai-Nehisi Coates v Dr. Cornel West. Of course, I confess my description of this disagreement might be mildly dramatic. But for the 5% of Americans not being distracted by the media monopoly of our President, it might as well have been the heavyweight championship.

A long story short, in an unprovoked media interview, West criticized Coates for being an overly-celebrated, neo-liberal whose coverage of the black struggle has significant blind spots including the expanding spectrum of sexuality, the proliferation of surveillance, and the stagnation of the poor black plight. Coates responded with a point-by-point rebuttal via Twitter in which he cited and referenced his previous writings. The strength of his counterarguments was unfortunately thwarted by his admittance that he failed to cover topics where he lacked expertise. Overwhelmed by the incited disagreement over social media, he decisively deleted his Twitter account saying, “This is not what he signed up for.”

I am rambling about the details of this somewhat catty disagreement because Coates is a writer whose wordsmith talent inspired me, among other things, to apply for the Mitchell. I remember being 21 when I read his infamous “The Case for Reparations” in which he traced the unfortunate organs of slavery’s subjugation to the “newfound” parallel within our criminal justice system. He essentially argues that African-American reparations never ceased after the end of the almost foreign Jim Crow era; more so, not even the principal has been paid. His resistance was raw, but it was wrapped in a style that not even the political far right could unfairly critique. He helped me fall back in love with writing again, specifically on issues concerning my community.

I told my thesis advisor of my Coates admiration before classes started. He shared a similar sentiment. And this was only compounded when he emailed me over Christmas break to share in my fan freak out of the disagreement. It meant a lot to me. It meant that he listened. It meant he valued my opinion. It meant that this academic relationship had friendship undertones. It made me feel special, understood, and celebrated. Thanks for the personal touch, Trinity. In this new year, I feel less international and more Irish – if that’s possible.

 

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People make the journey

One of my favorite parts of traveling is the clarity of thought that comes with sitting isolated alongside a window and watching the world rush by. Insulated from the clamor of everyday commitments and sheltered from the elements you’re free to let your mind wander; daydreaming, thinking, reflecting. This welcomed reprieve comes amongst the challenges navigating new places, confrontations of differing perspectives and the friction of peculiar environments. It’s here that I ponder the quotes and tidbits of wisdom I collect, and it’s fitting that in this space during my travels across Ireland I’ve found an expression that seems to capture my feelings towards my Mitchell experience, “the people make the journey.”

One of the most magical parts of living and studying abroad for the last four months in Ireland has been being a part of an incredible cohort of remarkably intelligent, talented and friendly people. Perhaps the most important attribute these scholars share is their passion for their unique fields and commitment to directing this passion towards some greater contribution to society. There isn’t a single conversation I walk away from without some new perspective or understanding about the world in an enlightening way. Each one of these scholars inspires me through their virtues to be better in a different way. From watching them compete for their university, perform at arts events, reading their published work, speak at conferences, grind away for exams and interviews, run marathons, or crush it at various receptions, each one makes me strive to reach higher and do more.

Being part of such an intimate group has distinct advantages. We collectively share in each other’s successes and shoulder the losses, we support each other by showing up for the events that one of us is a part of, helping to create a tighter community. By now we’ve gotten to know each other well enough that we have taken several opportunities to travel together. Experiencing a new place is always so much more memorable when you have people to share it with. There is a study that shows that sociality is the number one factor in a person’s happiness, which explains in part why we have so much fun together. Perhaps most important is that each one of these experiences traveling together creates memories that over time become bonds, bonds that will help us stay connected after we go our separate ways. Moving into this new year I look forward to sharing so many more experiences with this class and hopefully a full measure of traveling with each and every one of them.

Although our class is spread out over the emerald island, everyone is accessible and only a few hours away from the others. Having our friends at a distance gives us an incentive to break out of our own bubbles to visit these places in a way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. This encouragement comes in part at seeing the communities and places our friends call home at the different universities across Ireland. Experiencing these places with a local guide makes all the difference and allows the trip to become more intimate by sharing the local networks and places we’ve discovered with the others. At this point in our program, each scholar has taken their turn playing host to some of us and everyone has at a minimum visited several others, taking full advantage of number of couches to crash on at our disposal.

The Mitchell Scholarship has been an incredible opportunity but not in the least because of the people who we are joined with. The combination of the quality of scholars, sharing experiences, and encouraging each other to leave our comfort zones has been a reward in itself. In closing, the people make the journey.

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How does humanity express hope

I am now approaching the end of my fifth month in Dublin and I can hardly believe how quickly the time has gone. It feels like just yesterday that I got on a plane to fly to Ireland for the first time in my life. I did not know exactly what was waiting for me on the other side of the Atlantic, but I knew that I was excited to find out.

When I was in college I always wanted to take more literature classes, but between being premed and being in the chemistry department, I had little time to do so. Since coming to Ireland I have been fortunate to have the chance to finally read many of the works that I wanted to read when I was in college but did not have the time: Freud, Lacan, Foucault, Trollope, hooks, Mulvey, Lorde, Puar and so many others.

These last five months have in many ways been a time for me to get inside my own head. I have been absorbed with reading novels and writing essays about how gender operates in classic works of Irish literature, but recently I have been absorbed with writing essays for my application to medical school. As I have spent time reflecting on my journey to where I am today, I have asked myself what studying literature in Dublin has to do with going to medical school. Is this just a break from my studies related to medicine, or am I taking time to start to shape myself into the kind of doctor I want to be?

Literature has remained a core department in the liberal arts because literature is a medium through which humanity expresses possibility. Written works, expository and fiction, allow us to explore the past and then imagine what change can look like for the future. Doctors today more than ever need to be able to imagine new avenues for change in the American healthcare system, and the study of literature is essential not only for envisioning change, but also for showing others how things might change for the better with a little imagination.

I enjoy taking the train to Bray and walking along the coast. It is an excellent place to go to be alone with your thoughts.

As I think about what next semester will bring, I hope to merge what I have been reading with what I experience on a daily basis in Ireland. In the coming weeks I hope to begin my dissertation work on exploring how constructs of femininity and adolescent womanhood play a role in the anti-vaccination movement against Gardasil in Ireland, and I couldn’t be more excited to get to work. I want to understand how people use stories and folklore to rationalize painful experiences, and how this impulse can be deconstructed to help stop a dangerous resistance to vaccination in Ireland and abroad.

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Viewpoints

It’s said that “you don’t know what you don’t know,” and five months into living in Ireland, that is becoming more apparent to me every day.

One of the most enjoyable parts of studying public policy at UCD is the diversity of the students that I am fortunate enough to study with. My program is not terribly large with about 20-25 full-time students enrolled this year. We’ve gotten to know each other well over the first semester, challenging each other’s viewpoints in class and learning the ins and outs of public administration, evidence based policy-making, statistics, and research.

About half of my classmates are Irish, but other students are spread across nationalities from fellow Americans to Canadian, British, Belgian, Norwegian, Chinese, and Australian students. This wide diversity of life experiences, native countries, and views on the policy-making process has helped to challenge what I thought I knew about public policy, and about my own country and community. Viewing the nation and community where I grew up, their policy decisions, and their cultural norms from the lens of an outsider has allowed me to see both the weaknesses and unique strengths of America that I didn’t or couldn’t see when I was home.

This personal growth has also been enhanced by being able to travel to other European nations. Social norms in Greece, Portugal, and Italy, three countries I have been able to visit thus far, vary greatly and it has allowed me to see how societies can and do operate entirely differently, with both improvements to learn from and detriments to be wary of. Traveling has also allowed me to see my true passion, urban policy, played out in different settings. Seeing how the housing crisis impacts Dublin, how steep population decline has impacted Venice, and how the debt crisis has impacted daily life in Athens has affected how I see the issues of challenged communities at home. Visiting these communities makes me all the more confident that many of the issues faced by urban communities in the United States are not aberrations, but challenges faced by communities across the globe, with solutions that we can learn from.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” couldn’t be truer, and getting to learn what I don’t know and, more importantly, to learn this with people from around the world who bring a wealth of personal experiences and beliefs to the table has been an experience that will shape me for the rest of my life. Ireland and Europe provide a welcoming and challenging arena from which to learn about how to address the most pressing policy challenges of our day and to see urban communities operating and responding to challenges in different ways. By the end of August I hope to have learned how to better work with diverse groups of people to improve the community and country I call home from those around me here that are so passionate about and active in improving their own.

Metropolitan Athens

The Beauty of Venice

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Lessons in patience, humility, and taking the scenic route

The day before I left for Ireland, I spent my morning as most not-so-religious 25 years olds do prior to leaving home for a year: having a coffee date arranged by my Nana with the priest from my local parish. Father Dan is originally from County Kerry, but has been a staple in our community and family for as long as I can remember. That morning he wanted to hear about my upcoming Irish adventures and share some advice. As we wrapped up our time together, he left me with an incredibly important lesson for anyone entering a new space: to be respectful, open to new experiences, and to remain humble. After our talk, I began thinking about how best to prepare myself to sit in the discomforts and uncertainties that will inevitably arise as an outsider in a new country.

Well, I can certainly tell you that I did not plan to sit in that seat so soon- yet there I was, not even 48 hours later- standing in the Dublin airport at 6am as a customs officer stared at my documents and said, rather loudly, “Well, what is so compelling about you?” I was taken aback. In my head all I could think was, “Nothing sir, literally nothing, I am so sorry goodbye.” Before I could respond or get on the next flight home, he continued, “This letter here from the Mitchell Scholarship says there is a compelling reason that you are here today, well, what is it? Why should I let you into this country?” Halfway through awkwardly explaining my course of study at University College Cork and interest in Ireland’s criminal justice system, he stamped my passport and declared me “compelling enough”.

This question, “what is so compelling about you,” haunted me my first few weeks here in Ireland. While my transition to living in Cork has gone rather smoothly, I’ve felt at ease living here in a way that has not come as naturally in other places, I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that my transition back to being a full time student presented a new set of personal anxieties. The self-imposed pressure to pick the perfect classes, dive in headfirst with student groups, and hit the ground running with research, all weighed heavily on me. For someone who hasn’t been a student in over three years, returning to school felt more like unchartered territory than something I would easily get back into the swing of. When things didn’t click right away, different versions of that question of being “compelling enough,” crept into my psyche and filled me with doubt.

While discussing some of these anxieties with my professor, he asked, “Kathleen, have you considered taking the scenic route?” At first, I was perplexed by this. However, after thinking more about this, the lessons from Father Dan about being open during my time here filled my mind. I realized that this was not only my professors polite way of telling me to calm down but also that his advice applied to how I should spend all my time in Ireland, both inside and outside the classroom. Over the past two months, I have come to appreciate what taking the scenic route really means: slowing down, opening up, asking questions, and practicing patience with myself. I am finding that each day here in Ireland is an opportunity to discover new routes to enjoy and lessons to learn.  My cup overflows with gratitude and excitement as I look towards a year of learning, exploring, stumbling, and growing along the way.

Smiling in awe of Brother Anthony at Glenstal Abbey talking about his trees

University College Cork’s beautiful main campus

Enjoying Trinity’s amazing library

Befriending the locals in Kerry

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“Iasacht Lamh”: A New Irish Beginning

Upon the completion of my first two months in Ireland on the Mitchell Scholarship, I have much to be thankful for and even more to anticipate. These past months of adjustment have revealed the charm of Irish culture and challenged myself and my fellow class to maximize our time here.

As someone who is accustomed to a very rigid schedule of eating, exercising, and studying, Ireland has in effect thrown all of that out the window. Which is a good thing. Oftentimes, structure impedes exploration – and a set routine can confine one entirely to their comfort zone.

One day in September I was talking with my cab driver about places to go and things to try out. He told me of an Irish expression – “iasacht lamh” – meaning to “lend your hand.” Originating from an old tale of feuding families, the expression depicts one family member trying to make peace with the other side by offering a handshake through a carved hole in a wooden door – a risky leap of faith as their opponents stood on the other side with knives and swords aplenty. Albeit an extreme analogy, this saying symbolizes the excitement of embracing uncertainty: “lending your hand” to new experiences.

There are other slogans and hot takes that local cab drivers have willingly dished out, not all entirely appropriate for a published blog, but this advice has proven to be particularly useful. Here in Ireland, I’ve settled into a new rhythm of unpredictability – which has already yielded fruitful experiences.

Walking along the cliffs of Howth and Moher and traversing the mural-laden streets of Belfast are just a few things that have added to my experience. Learning of Ireland’s difficult colonial past and struggles with ethnic conflict make me appreciate all the more a society’s ability to reconcile and move forward, even with all the baggage. The first impression one gets when traveling the Emerald Isle is the awe of its immense natural beauty. For me, such scenery proclaims God’s majesty and serves as a reminder of how much we take for granted.

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Mitchell Welcome Reception at the Royal Irish Academy

Glenstal Abbey, Limerick

As a proud Tennessean and adopted Kentuckian, my belief in “southern hospitality” can now make a new exception. People here have been incredibly accommodating and have gone the extra mile to help. During my first week here I emailed a local pastor, out of the blue, about visiting his church. The next afternoon, we were sipping coffee together with his wife, discussing each other’s lives and the mission of the Church. The next week, I found myself at their home with other young adults from our congregation eating soda bread, vegetable soup, and watching the GAA finals. “The land of a thousand welcomes” holds fast and true.

When our Mitchell class visited Glenstal Abbey, a poem by the late Irish poet John O’Donohue was read to us before we departed. The words of the poem not only confirm Ireland’s long tradition of literary genius, but also perfectly speak to the start of this new experience – a full year of study, fellowship, and exploration:

“Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening…

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.”

Here’s to a new Irish beginning, a year of lending one’s hand to new experiences and people, and a new rhythm of risk and promise.

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