Galway death of ambition curse [GONE WRONG]

Even though this may be the end of the Mitchell program, it’s only the beginning of my new journey. I’m immensely grateful for the opportunity to pursue my passion in Ireland and mold it into my guiding purpose.

August 28th was the day I initially arrived in Dublin. Now I sit here, 296 days later, tasked with reflecting on this journey.

It’s hard to put it into words, so instead I’m just going to show you all.

One picture from each week from the last 42 weeks (with description). Enjoy!

Week 1: So many pictures to choose from during my first week here, so I went with something basic and cliche.

Week 2: Barely a week here and I’m already in the tattoo studio, par for the course I guess

Week 3: NUT HOT!!!

Week 4: Vivek and I went to Gaol

Week 5: Alexa and I got trashed (literally)

Week 6: The first of many nights out with my new friends

Week 7: My class has our first (and only) study session (the rest were just parties)

Week 8: My classmates hosted the first class dinner. On the menu: biryani and panipuri

Week 9: I climb a cliff (and survive)

Week 10: I met the Mayor of Galway, who endured a grueling 2 minute pitch on hydroponic grocery stores from yours truly (our team didn’t win the competition)

Week 11: I experienced the worst bus ride ever and then Zoha convinced me to get launched in the air

Week 12: Who let this guy in the lab?????

Week 13: My classmates surprised me for my birthday (everyone thought it was a hen)

Week 14: Surprised my mom for my birthday

Week 15: Alexa and I tried to adopt a cat

Week 16: COP28 live coverage (pls don’t look for it online)

Week 17: Undoubtably Turnpike Troubadours was playing during this pic, I’m back stateside

Week 18: Holidays with my family

Week 19: Nick’s first taste of his new home (NYC)

Week 20: Spending my last few days back in the US with my first love

Week 21: The Boys are Back in Town (Cork)

Week 22: Never in a million years did I think I would be excited to see a machine that tracks cow burps but such is the consequence of my actions (Ag masters)

Week 23: They made my tattoo into a painting

Week 24: Pancake Tuesday!! (I taught my irish friend how to make real pancakes)

Week 25: Sam and I’s final ascent

Week 26: Vivek and I in Gaol (again)

Week 27: My brother experiences a night out with my friends!!

Week 28: Angela’s birthday (afrobeats at the club until 3 am not pictured)

Week 29: Final class field trip

Week 30: I was pink(er than usual) for like weeks after Holi

Week 31: Beach day with the program (my tattoos shouldnt be in the sun)

Week 32: First client for the start-up!

Week 33: Propa Irish swim ey

Week 34: The plate I had at this party was unlike anything I;ve eaten before. unreal.

Week 35: My first solo concert (could do a whole post on this). Over the course of my now 120 concerts, I’ve always been in attendance with family/friends/etc. This was my first concert alone and it was one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done.

Week 36: Me & my dog (back in the US)

Week 37: Wouldn’t miss it for the world, love y’all

Week 38: Made a friend on the plane to Ireland and she introduced me to her dog (and let me drive her car) (mistake)

Week 39: Updated my LinkedIn tagline to “Investor”

Week 40: Changed it to “Founder”

Week 41: Blessed to be surrounded by success

Week 42: I’ve spent my last few weeks in Galway being present, knowing this place will always be special

If you made it this far, just know I love and appreciate you for the support and friendship you’ve blessed me with over the past 426,240 minutes. <3

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Till Later

Taken on Inis Mór

Last September, one week after arriving in Galway, I wrote a note to myself and stuck it in the depths of my 300-something page scrapbook. I’d completely forgotten about it until a few nights ago, when I was sorting through the book to find a home for the miscellaneous paper junk I’ve acquired over the year. The letter reads:


September 3rd, 2023

Hiii—I’m writing this letter from my new room in Galway! Ahh! Everything feels so strange and weird and wonderful. I was up until 3 AM last night unpacking the last of my suitcases, and the room is beginning to feel familiar. I can see the ocean from my room’s window, and I just came back from a sunny, 79-degree weather day reading on the beach (wild, right?). The September Summer is real, and I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to experience it.

I don’t have anything specific to say. I just want take note of how I’m feeling before I forget. Grandma and Mom went home several days ago, and I’ve felt a bit anxious since they’ve left. Everything is new and stimulating, and it’s all so exciting, but I feel a bit out of my depth. Perhaps my anxieties will dissipate once classes start—I imagine that they will. 

I want to learn a new creative skill while I’m here (maybe bodhrán? pastels?) and take full advantage of my proximity to the sea. I plan to write a lot of letters (this is me practicing my cursive), take as many long walks on the prom as I can, and become a regular somewhere. TBD where that place will be. In the meantime, I’m going to stop by Secret Garden to get a pastry and buy some stamps so that I can send my first round of postcards. I wrote a few on that grassy patch along River Corrib yesterday and it helped to calm me down, so maybe I’ll do that again. I hate to end this so abruptly, but the weather outside is too good to miss! Till later…

Reading the letter back, I realize that I had completely forgotten about my feelings of apprehension at the start of the year. In the weeks after, I became close friends with the girls I met through my course, and we spent the next eight months hosting weeknight dinners, gossiping during lunch between our classes, going for morning swims, exchanging family recipes, frequenting the monthly drag shows at the Róisín Dubh, and spending more time in the Secret Garden than I’m willing to admit. I bought a set of oil pastels, filled an entire sketchbook with drawings from my travels in Ireland, and spent my Thursday nights in the Galway Pottery studio learning to never attach myself to a pottery creation, because it will inevitably fly off of the wheel and morph into an unrecognizable vessel that I’ll say is intentional.

In the spring, I went hiking in Connemara with the university’s mountaineering club, and enjoyed dozens of morning and night walks along the promenade. These walks particularly humored me when the weather broke 50 degrees and I saw the masses flocking to the Creamery for a 99. Ali introduced me to the finest wine bars that Galway has to offer, and never ceased to amaze me with her graciousness, humility, and ability to light up a room, no matter who’s in it. Rabhya generously hosted me for wonderful sleepovers, which made the long nights feel cozy, not oppressive, and Zoha always had the perfect book/song/TV recommendation that I didn’t know I needed. Alex and Sam provided first-class entertainment whenever I was cooking, and Vikram made me laugh often about philosophy, of all things. 

In such a short time, my apprehension about moving to Galway disappeared and was replaced by the fear of ever having to leave. As I write this from the Dublin airport waiting for my return flight to Chicago, I am immensely grateful for the Mitchell Scholarship and all of the people who made this year the most enjoyable and memorable year yet. Till later, Galway.

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A Year of Pints and Mires

My mom, who rather coincidentally also studied abroad in Ireland, insists that Ulysses is the best book ever written.  Despite books being woefully inefficient in packing space to entertainment quantity ratio, I wasn’t allowed to leave America without a copy. It’s taken me until a few weeks ago (and ironically a trip to Croatia) to actually crack the thing open, but I think I see where she’s coming from. To be clear, I only just have an idea of what’s going on. That will take a lot more time and a lot more RTE companion podcasts. But with every page I begin to understand what makes Ulysses such a classic – at its core it’s an ode to Ireland and to Dublin. The joy of reading it has been discovering that, after all of my time here, on some small level I feel like I can relate to that. When the book opens at Sandycove Beach, I realise I’ve unknowingly stood in exactly that spot, looking out at Dalkey Island and the other very same landmarks admired by the characters.  I’ve watched the gulls in the Liffey, braved the winds of South Dublin’s beaches, and sprawled in the lush grass of Howth. When Leopold Bloom walks through the avenues of Dublin, I know the streets he takes, and I can envision how they intersect with my own habitual routes. There’s some essence of Dublin’s scrappy character that Joyce nails perfectly, and I would not have appreciated it without the months I’ve spent here. Of course, I don’t claim to have become Irish by any stretch of the imagination, nor really can I comprehend the Irish blood mixed with Joyce’s ink, but I can trace the silhouettes of roots I’ve planted here in his words. 

In admittedly quite the opposite vein, I’ve also found reflections in my favourite show, much of which was filmed in Northern Ireland. Though its similarities with Ulysses end at a penchant for gratuitous vulgarity, Game of Thrones epitomises the other side of my year on the Emerald Isle; the epic sprawl of the (in this case Northern) Irish landscape depicted on screen has been my primary reason for leaving Bloom’s blazed trails behind. Plus, it helps that I can visit The Wall or Winterfell on a day trip. While it sidesteps the culture and people that make Ireland and Northern Ireland what they are today, an imaginative vision of a land where armadas sail past cliffs and soldiers man hill-perched battlements has its merits. At the very least, it’s driven me to spend countless weekends exploring the furthest reaches from my home in Dublin. By my own measure my overarching quest to find the very best views has led me to explore this country quite thoroughly. Introspectively, I often find that the same dramatic flare of both Game of Thrones and the Irish landscape captures how I sometimes think about my own life. A career is a years-long campaign, an exam a siege to be plotted out and endured. There are battles to be won and ideals to be championed and grand strategies to play in the days to come. In other words, looking at landscapes all the time means you’re always zoomed out looking for the big features — quite the opposite from a single day packed into seven hundred pages.

What I’ve begun to realise about this year in Ireland is that I haven’t had to make a tradeoff between the sweeping sagas of Game of Thrones and the daily routines of Ulysses. I am so unbelievably fortunate that the simple moments of my day-to-day life have also been extraordinary. This is the unbelievable opportunity the Mitchell Scholarship has afforded me. No long haul flights, hardly any planning; I could wake up every morning beset by excitement and learning and places to explore. I’ve been living in the moment and living momentously at the same time. It’s the kind of thing that feels impossible to compress into words, but I’ll give it a try by tying together my past few months.

Perhaps my single greatest claim to fame is that a sheep finally let me pet it on the hike from Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher. (It turns out that neither offering grass, nor moving slowly, nor reducing your size, nor wearing white were more effective than simply finding sheep acclimated to tourism.) I visited the same pub in Killarney frequently enough that I established a regular seat (the two person booth beneath the stairs) that I shared on separate occasions with my best friend, my girlfriend, one of my college roommates, and my sisters. I got to hear from Geoff Hinton, “The Godfather of AI,” when he came to speak at UCD and hosted a private Q&A with the computer science students. I even spotted wild seals on my sixth hiking trip to Howth. On multiple occasions I accidentally walked in on pubs packed with screaming rugby fans (perhaps the only time the Irish are louder than Americans?), and I learned about how one of my Irish roommates ate baked potatoes with a side of chips at home in Donegal. On various bus or train journeys I got to soak in the lushness of Wicklow, the rapeseed fields of Trim, the wilderness of the Glens of Antrim, the crags of the Ring of Kerry, and the ruins of Kilkenny. Even as I write this the salty sea water from the Skelligs is finally drying out of my jeans.

For the longest time it felt like this year would go on forever until one day it started feeling like it would end tomorrow. I know when I return home in July that family and friends will ask me if I have any major takeaways from my time in Ireland, and I think first and foremost I’ll tell them this: I want to bring the epic adventures of the day to day back to the States with me. Being away has made me eager for my return to Atlanta, not just in that I miss it, but because I want to re-encounter it. Perhaps that is what I’ve learned from Ulysses too, in all its crudeness and minutiae: how to be present when walking the streets of home.

As it seems the end of my time in Ireland has no interest in getting any further away, I do feel the perennial nagging to be sappy for a few beats. For merely the idea of spending a funded year in Ireland I am eternally grateful; add to that the friends — new and old — who have shared in the adventures with me, the countless opportunities to explore corners of the world I never thought I would visit in my lifetime, and the astounding privilege of waking up each morning to a day that is exciting by default . . . I’m simply blown away. To everyone who played a part in that, many of whom are the only people who will ever read this: Thank you

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you wouldn’t BELIEVE how cold it was

A morning dip in Dingle.

As I write this last post, I’ve come home from a study day in the Dun Laoghaire library. It’s probably one of my favourite places in Dublin – you can see the seaside (and Howth, across Dublin Bay) from its massive windows. Today, there was a sailing race which was promptly interrupted by a thunderstorm. 

I’ve been preparing for my thesis, which will focus on Ireland’s 2017 climate assembly. Climate activists and deliberative democrats alike herald climate assemblies as the potential solution to break through political gridlock, leading to a proliferation of climate assemblies in Europe. Whether they actually enact said climate mitigation policies is another question. (It should be noted that Ireland’s climate assembly was the first in the world, making it a notable one to study.) Since coming to Dublin, I’ve been working as a research assistant for a multi-year project called “Communicative Deliberation for Climate Action,” or COMDEL, at DCU’s Future of Media, Journalism, and Democracy Institute. We’ve written several papers on climate assemblies and climate misinformation, and my thesis will serve as another paper for the project. 

Witnessing citizens’ assemblies in Ireland has been both inspiring and humbling. It’s still remarkable to me how mainstream politicians have bought into a fairly radical idea of representation; yet some of their shortcomings are also more visible to me now. I briefly mentioned this in my first blog post but in October, I got to see the last session of the Assembly on Drugs. I’d been warned that the session was going to be dry, as it was just voting on the proposed recommendations. My expectations couldn’t be more wrong. At a bleary 8 AM in Malahide, a woman stood up and declared that the assembly was rigged. She voiced her discontent with the voting process, saying that RTE had already predicted what the assembly would recommend. What was the point? 

A PhD student in COMDEL and I were talking about citizen accountability the other day. She proposed that citizens be involved in “meta deliberation,” or deliberating about what deliberations should take place and how. She cited the Ostbelgien Model in Belgium, where former assembly members serve on a Parliamentary committee and are tasked with both calling for new assemblies and setting their scope. In Ireland, politicians give assemblies wide mandates, but the specifics are drawn in by the civil servants running the assemblies. Of course, there could be a “turtles all the way down” problem: at what point do you stop deliberating about deliberations? But I understand her argument for more accountability. Without it, citizens’ assemblies are ineffective at solving issues and at worst, they risk becoming another instrumentalist tool for politicians. And agenda-setting powers matter: in the Drug Assembly, participants pointed out that the very mandate was about “stopping the harms of drugs” – which inherently pre-supposed that drugs have no medical benefits. 

Living in a country which regularly enacts citizens’ assemblies has refined my perspective on their role in society. My undergraduate studies were inherently theoretical; there are very few citizens’ assemblies in America. When my classmates and I debated their merits, we relied upon our intuitions – and as a result, I was enamoured with the idea of assemblies as a “fix all” for contemporary ills of democracy. Ireland’s successful assemblies have improved – but not transformed – its democracy. This year’s riots and rise of anti-immigrant Independent candidates, for example, reveal that Ireland is not immune to the global rise of right-wing populism. Of course, I would simply argue that these problems stem from a lack of democracy. We need meaningful inclusion of citizens in policy-making, especially on salient issues like the housing crisis. Simply put, deliberative “mini-publics” have yet to scale up and transform the larger “maxi public.” In undergrad, I read theorists like Christina LaFont who warned against the creation of yet another privileged few via citizens’ assembly. Now, I see what she means: enlightening a mini-public only goes so far if the larger population isn’t engaged or aware of these debates.

Moreover, I’ve also considered tailoring democratising reforms for different types of policy-making. In the Drug Assembly, I noted that a lot of the recommendations were garnering over 90% support – but they also lacked teeth. One recommendation, for example, advocated to make the drug issue in Ireland a priority; another recommendation urged for the budget to be increased. Yet neither addressed the real controversies: what political issues will be put aside when prioritising drug policy? Where will the money in the budget be coming from? Ireland’s success stories come from decisions that are less bureaucratic and more constitutional. Abortion and same-sex marriage don’t involve details of implementation and budgeting. Yet there is a need for democratic oversight over these more bureaucratic kinds of decisions, even if it’s not citizens’ assemblies.  I therefore no longer see assemblies as a “fix all,” but one part of a larger series of changes. 

Witnessing a different political system has also challenged many of my assumptions about democracy. America’s representational woes stem from a first-past-the-post system which which allow little room for alternatives to succeed to the two (increasingly polarized) main parties. In Ireland, the problem is opposite: both mainstream parties are rooted in a historical cleavage and therefore vary little on most policies. Understanding the different problems with existing representation has meant I’ve had to think about what goals I might pursue back in the States differently – we aim towards decreased polarization, but what happens when there is too much consensus?

Getting to think about these kinds of questions every day has been such a joy. I still get excited when I find a cool paper, or when I get to work with individuals who have literally created these assemblies. It’s a pleasure to be around other people who care so much about this topic as well. There was certainly a loyal community of students at Yale who cared about CAs – mostly the ones who took the same Open Democracy class I did – and we’ve all stayed in touch over the years. But I’ve really enjoyed meeting a larger community of PhD students and academics, both in Ireland and abroad, who have devoted their actual careers to CAs. I think I’ll be moving back to the States next year – I miss home too much – but this year has made a profound impact on me, both professionally and personally.

Oh, and it turns out Ireland’s quite stunning in the spring. Left to right: West Cork with Freya; Drumcondra in Dublin; Mitchells go boating in Dingle.

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That’s it.

The pinnacle of the medieval Welsh narrative tradition is the Mabinogi. I mentioned it in my last blog post because it’s been on my mind quite a bit this year (and especially in the last few weeks). It is made up of four independent texts, called the “branches” of the Mabinogi. What connects these four stories is a single sentence that concludes each of the tales: “And so ends this branch of the Mabinogi.”

The reason I have been so drawn to labelling of these stories as branches is because it forms an interesting metaphor, painting the narrative as a tree. The story is not a single account but rather made up of independent branches, each growing and twisting in their own unique ways but all connected at their base to a shared trunk. The branches define the tree, and the tree is what connects each branch to each other.

I find this image so beautiful. Imagining a narrative as a tree—something which grows and changes, something which splits in half and twists in every which way, something which sprouts and flowers and withers and regrows—what a perfect picture for a story.  A story which can change, can be reinterpreted, can be lost and found, can be twisted and reworked, can spark new thoughts and ideas and traditions.

The Mabinogi‘s concluding sentence has been on my mind recently as my Mitchell year begins to come to a close. Like the stories of the Mabinogi, we often describe episodes of our lives as branches. Growing up Illinois, that’s one branch of my life. Going off to college, another branch. And this year—moving to Ireland, studying at UCC—has been a new branch slowly growing. Each discovery, each adventure creates a small knot in the wood.

As I begin to plan my plane ticket back to Chicago (one-way this time), I have been reflecting on those knots. While looking back at this past year, I have realized—in a contradictory way—how quickly it passed and how long it has been. It must only have been a few weeks ago that I arrived at Dublin Airport, hopped on the train to Cork, and walked to my apartment for the first time. I remember feeling uneasy walking down the street then, everything feeling just a little different than what I was used to: the cars drove on the left side of the road, the buses had two floors, and I didn’t even know where to buy a duvet. But this unease was replaced soon after with a new sense of comfort. I found my go-to coffeeshop, I knew to bring my umbrella everywhere, I met new friends (and I found a suitable duvet). Then in the blink of an eye, it’s time to leave this second home. And I expect I’ll feel a new unease as soon as I do leave.

But as I scroll through my camera roll, I realize how long ago it was that I first arrived. Not just in time—though nine months is not nothing—but in experience. My first photos are from the Mitchell trip to Dublin, really the first time we got to know each other. Then some pictures I took at the Cork Halloween parade and a Christmas party I went to with my roommates. I see photos from Killarney and Galway on my trip around Ireland with Shayna, and I remember getting soaked by the Irish rain (more than once). And then there are the pictures from the February trip to Cobh with Neel and Vivek. Jeez, these all feel so long ago.

Even the more recent adventures feel forever ago. My and Vikram’s trip to Athens—the perfect mix of history and philosophy between the two of us if I do say so myself—and a solo trip to Amsterdam and Brussels take up large chunks of my camera roll.

The capstone to this year, though, was the Mitchell trip to Dingle. All of us together, at the western edge of Ireland. There is no more fitting place to close out our Mitchell year than the place where the sun sets on the island. Hiking together, relaxing together, waking up early and polar plunging together. I can’t believe that was only a week ago.

To think I met the other Mitchells not even one year ago seems so surprising now. It feels like we’ve known each other for years. But I suppose that’s what happens when you pack several years’ worth of experiences together into nine months. 

I am not the same person who came here in September, and I must imagine this goes for all twelve of us. Through the experiences we had—the trips together, the hikes around Ireland, the adventures around Europe—and through our new relationships—with each other, with classmates, with roommates—we have grown and changed. A new branch has formed for each of us, and they have grown together, twisting around each other. 

I am so grateful for this year, and the weight of this experience is stressed by the pause in the Mitchell Scholarship. This has been so special and so unique, and I sincerely hope that the Scholarship continues, allowing future classes the same incredible opportunity as I have had.

Reflecting on these experiences, these relationships, this whole year… I can only say: thank goodness for my phone’s photo storage.

And so ends this branch of our lives. 

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telling the truth about ireland.

Try as I might, I find it difficult not to over-romanticize my time here in Ireland. This small island has a charm that simply cannot be shaken or overstated. It sounds trite, but it’s true that green is simply greener here (all that rain pays off in the end). My life in Belfast is dotted with small, everyday delights like the Queen’s Film Theatre, flowers in bloom on campus, and everyone gathering on the Botanic green on sunny days. The bigger delights of late include: seeing dolphins, a shark, some puffins, and seals with other Mitchell scholars on a boat tour; touring ruins of centuries-old castles; and witnessing huge moments for transitional justice and human rights activism across Northern Ireland.

I have been so grateful to work for the Committee on the Administration of Justice during my year in Belfast. My work with them has included legal research, putting together a few issues of their human-rights newsletter Just News, and attending conferences with other human rights organizations like ICCL, who do important civil liberties work in Ireland. I feel very proud to have contributed research to the recent report, ‘Bitter Legacy: State Impunity in the Northern Ireland Conflict,’ compiled by a panel of international experts. The report detailed a deliberate and systematic pattern of impunity perpetrated by the UK government during the Northern Ireland conflict, which resulted in an abject failure to investigate and prosecute human rights abuses perpetrated by state actors during the conflict, contrary to the UK government’s international and domestic human rights obligations.

My time in Belfast will continue to ground my views on transitional justice and my human rights research and advocacy. Transitional justice is a small field, but one that resonates deeply across all countries, and one which has been cast in stark relief by recent headlines: as the UK Legacy Act is challenged in domestic and international courts; as the ICC continues to issue arrest warrants for current state leaders in breach of international humanitarian law; and, closer to home, as former state leaders like Donald Trump are held liable in domestic courtrooms for criminal acts. While I always imagined pursuing a career in transitional justice abroad, my time in Belfast has made me consider how I can work on issues of accountability and rule of law back in the States.

I’ve been fortunate to find gems of friends here in Belfast from Northern Ireland, Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, and of course other Americans (can’t shake them). Many of my friends living in the States and other places in Europe have also come to visit me, which I’ve been so grateful for. I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday celebration, with my high school friends visiting and my new Belfast friends joining for pints at Kelly’s and The Sunflower, a drag show at The Maverick, and late-night dancing at Ulster Sports Club. It’s a birthday I’ll always remember. There are lows in living abroad, too – homesickness in particular, as expected – but my friends here soften the lows and make the highs even richer.

Much as Belfast has made me consider how to align my career goals with accountability and human rights in the States, it has also made me consider how to live more mindfully at home when I return back to D.C. in September. The affinity I’ve grown for Google Maps can surely help me explore my own home city and state, and the openness to new friendships I’ve adopted here may help me branch out more when I return, too. In other words, study abroad changed me and that is my truth.

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As summer approaches, Dublin has finally begun to thaw: after a half-year disappearance, the sun has warmed from a lifeless winter sulk to a cheerful spring glow. In the lengthening days, larger crowds than ever have been flocking to the performances on Grafton Street and the monuments on Trinity Campus. But I’ve been drawn most strongly to the wildflowers in Phoenix Park and the seagulls on the River Liffey, charmed by the city at its most ordinary.

As my Mitchell year draws to a close, my gratitude for Ireland has become bittersweet. Once I’ve left, I worry that I’ll forget the country’s quieter beauties: my photographs can remind me of packed pubs and verdant landscapes, but what could capture the feel of the wind on the clifftops, the sound of laughter around the dinner table, the scent of the hillsides after rain? And now that my friends have scattered to Austria, Australia, Trinidad, and elsewhere around the globe, how could the magic of our time together on the island ever be recreated?

But my farewell to Ireland may not be as permanent as I fear. Perhaps I’ll always have my constellations of friends, connected by our universe of experiences. Perhaps I’ll always maintain the joy of rediscovering the world, enchanted by the everyday. And perhaps I’ll always remember my life abroad like a sunset — enriched by its transience, welcoming a new dawn.

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We broke up.

Disclaimer: Some of the other Mitchells and I thought of making click-bait-style headlines for our last blog post!

An end of May trip to Dingle, County Kerry marked the official end of the 2024 Mitchell Scholarship and the last time I might expect to see the rest of the class for the near future. We broke up. But the trip was not even a little sad, and was instead a time of great appreciation towards Ireland. After a year, I’ve watched my friends and peers grow and mature as individuals. They continue to impress me with their accomplishments and passion. I am excited to hear what everyone has been working towards and moving on to in the coming year. My memories of Dingle seem magical: seeing dolphins and sharks in the Bay, running into the sea in the cold morning, and hiking through dense and shifting fog. 

Having this time to devote to study and think about my research and future has been invaluable. Recently, my work on statistical methodologies for measuring police discrimination was accepted into a conference taking place this summer in Philadelphia. I am also debating at the European Universities Debating Championship in Glasgow, Scotland this summer with the Phil. The Mitchell has also given me the opportunity to explore Ireland and beyond within Europe. 

The Mitchell is uniquely valuable, and I hope that it gains the funding it needs to exist in perpetuity. I believe in programs that allow young people with drive and potential the chance to focus on their research, personal development, and the nation of Ireland. I hold fond memories of Dublin and I know I will return.

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How to make a core memory

“Memory is random and irresponsible in every heart” (Kate O’Brien, 1938).

Last month, I FaceTimed my girlfriend for a virtual date night. We chatted about her upcoming college graduation, and she described excitedly how frenetic and chaotic the home stretch would be. She was looking forward to all the “senior week” events, eager and optimistic to make some core memories before leaving Boston. I reflected on my own pre-graduation senior week from a year ago and thought about the core memories I have—picking up my cap and gown from the gym, views of the skyline from a parking deck during a photoshoot with my friends, the cookies served on the party boat in Boston harbor, the sun’s heat I felt waking up from a nap instead of attending commencement.

What makes a moment become a core memory—the kind of memory that pulls you into the past, that you can describe in excruciating detail? Some core memories capture life-changing moments, yet others are rather innocuous. Maybe you remember vividly the scent of a bagel shop that you grew up near, or maybe the booming voice of Boston’s MBTA system warning you to “stand clear of the closing doors” takes you back to rush hour commutes for your first job. Some core memories are moments we cherish and return to—a first date, a college graduation—and other core memories we bury and try to forget. But if the moments we remember aren’t dictated by the moment’s significance, or a person’s affect toward it, or even its recency, then what does determine how we form core memories?

Earlier this semester, I had the privilege to hear Geoffrey Hinton—winner of the 2018 Turing Award and creator of backpropagation—deliver a seminar on artificial intelligence at UCD. Hinton is a cognitive neuroscientist who fell into AI curious about its human mind-inspired design. When asked about whether he believed large language models could be as creative and inventive as human research scientists, he answered:

“A lot of creativity comes from seeing remote analogies.” Neural networks, like humans, find analogies and patterns between distant ideas that allow concepts and language to be compressed in a finite number of neurons. This is how GPT can, for instance, creatively answer how a trash compactor is similar to a backpack.

To learn with a finite number of neurons all that it encounters from billions of training examples, a deep learning model identifies common, generalizable ideas. Does human memory work analogously, recognizing similarities between disparate experiences to capture them within a finite number of neurons?

Dr. Tomás Ryan is a neuroscientist at Trinity College Dublin who studies this mechanism of human memory in engrams—neuronal ensembles that tune what they’ve learned through persistent physicochemical changes. His research suggests that new experiences aren’t learned from scratch, but broken down into ideas which have already been learned, and those corresponding engrams are tuned via long-term potentiation or depression, which is analogous to how Hinton’s backpropagation algorithm enables adaptive changes to neural ensembles.

So given what we know about how memories are effectively stored in humans and machines, maybe core memories possess some “dis-analogies” where something unexpected occurred or something new was discovered. Maybe the strongest core memories cannot be effectively stored, requiring more neuronal ensembles to capture and recall the moment.

I contemplated this in the context of my Mitchell year, and realized it held true for many of my clearest memories. In a year dotted with rare experiences and unbelievable beauty and unanticipated growth, the moments that I remember clearest include some element of relative normalcy—eating PB&J’s with Zach, Rabhya, and Teresa atop magnificent Glendalough; the cold, dewey grass we sat on at St. Stephen’s Green after meeting Senator Mitchell; the soreness in my legs running 12% elevation to Conor’s Pass by Dingle.

In a moment of clarity, I realized it’s the juxtaposition of simple experiences with rare ones, slow experiences in chaotic times, and moments of connection amidst isolation that formed my core memories as a Mitchell.

I think a false belief I held coming into Dublin was that living the most colorful and memorable life meant aspiring for summits or picturesque cities or accolades or something grandiose. And while pursuit of that thing can be worthwhile, constantly living within it may not be what you remember or appreciate best when you leave.

My roommate and closest friend in Dublin is Anthony (Yan), an Information Systems student from Northern China. Anthony returns to China next month, and while getting dinner at a noodle shop, I asked Anthony: “When we first met this year you said you really liked the expression ‘no risk, no story.’ Do you think you have a story now?”

“Mmmm, I think so. Before coming here, I never left my hometown. Now I am in a new country, speaking a new language, and I meet new people, and I see new things. So I think yes, I have such a good story to tell. I think with no risk, there is no story. But also, the risk is the story. I think when I’m older and maybe I’m stressed about work, I will remember about this time we spent together in Ireland, and I will remember when we went to the City Centre to eat noodles, even though it is very simple. But this is where my life happens, and this is a beautiful moment.”

One of my closest childhood friends once innocently captioned an Instagram post, “the moments between the moments.” Ripping a page from his book, here are some images that capture the moments between the moments from my year in Dublin: some of my fondest, most cherished core memories.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou
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Day 248 — 30 May 2024

“All these years they’ve been like two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions. But in the end she has done something for him, she’s made a new life possible, and she can always feel good about that.” Sally Rooney, Normal People, p. 272.

To me, deciding where to start is the most difficult part of writing a retrospective. Sometimes it’s best to take you on a journey from the very beginning: in this case, that would be Summer 2019, the very first time I visited Ireland as a wide-eyed college freshman. In other cases, I’d start from the end – here, the Mitchells’ most recent adventure on the Dingle Peninsula – and work my way backwards. But either of those options would lead me down a narrative rabbit hole that far exceeds the scope of this format. To that end, I’ll try to take you somewhere in-between.

It’s hard to sum up the first five years of my relationship with Ireland narratively, anyway, because of the pitfalls, bends, and moments of awe that have paved this trail. No moment or plotline is an adequate vehicle for that nuance. After all, it’s “not grand gestures” that make a life, but “all those moments through the days, weeks, months that don’t get marked on calendars with hand-drawn stickers or little stickers;” the “mundane details that, over time, accumulate until you have a home, instead of a house” (E. Henry, Funny Story, p. 329).

Sally Rooney puts it this way in Normal People: “I think we’re at that weird age where life can change a lot from small decisions” (p. 239). I cherish each of the small decisions that I, and others, made to lead me to this blog post. A few immediately come to mind:

  • Studying abroad in Ireland during 2019. I could have instead chosen New Zealand, or Japan, or Canada, or nowhere at all, but I went with the place that most closely resembled the name my mother gave me. Would I have come here if my name was John, or Ryan, or Marty?
  • Majoring in political science, even though history, sociology, and many other social sciences also piqued my interest. Would I have discovered, or capitalized on, my interest in the peace process without the tools of a political scientist?
  • The assignment of Maysa Sitar as my “buddy” by the Social Science Scholars Program. Maysa’s encouragement and mentorship over the years was a cornerstone of my success at MSU that, on paper, set me up for professional success. And when she earned the Mitchell, it humbled me and showed that I could, and should, work boldly. Would I have heard of the Mitchell if someone other than Maysa was my buddy?
  • The random assignment of Penny Graham-Yooll as my partner in the Senior Ambassador Program. Her warmth and stories of adventure from around the world have consistently inspired me over the years, especially while here in Belfast. Would I have felt brave enough to move abroad without Penny’s influence?
  • Trina and Serena suggesting that I study at Trinity this year, instead of Queen’s, as I had originally intended. Would my research questions and relationship to the island be different if I had never met my classmates?

And none of these are as small, or impactful, as the first choice that I made:

  • Applying to Michigan State University on a whim. I looked at schools in Alabama, Massachusetts, Virginia, and elsewhere, and I thought little of my alma mater before visiting. The only reason I saw East Lansing in January 2019, and committed to the school just days later, was because I had a free day between visits to other schools that I had cared about more. Where in the world would I be if I didn’t have that time? Where would I be without the privilege to take a cross-country college tour? Who would I be?

These small decisions, and countless others, make up a beautiful mosaic that I admire deeply. To explain what it means to me, I’ll focus on the main setting of my story. Belfast, my home for the last nine months. The city whose gravity captured me from that first July day and hasn’t let go. Where the peace lines continue to slam shut every night by sundown, despite the uplifting messages plastered across them. Belfast is a place that, itself, is somewhere in-between its past golden age (and times of trouble) and uncertain future. Tens of thousands of people still work day-in and day-out to get by while they shoulder the burdens of complex, generational, collective, all-encompassing trauma. Stormont and Westminster alike have done little to meaningfully reconcile that legacy of conflict for several reasons: misunderstanding; indifference; a fear of stirring the pot; the electoral stability offered by polarized voting blocs; that urge to move forward that many of us feel, but for some is blinding. In much of Belfast, the truth remains “a circle from one side and a square from the other” (Jan Carson, The Fire Starters, p. 7), which concerns me.

If studying Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation taught me anything, it’s that the past (1) can’t be changed and (2) shouldn’t be ignored. After all, when one looks closely, it can reveal lessons about why conflicts begin, how they’re resolved, and the extent to which they transform the societies they affect. But the lessons don’t reveal themselves: we have complete agency to analyze the past, or to ignore it altogether. Sustainable futures are built on the foundation of a well-understood, respected, accepted past. That requires settling debts, rectifying power imbalances, acknowledging responsibility, searching for shared understanding, and creating opportunities for friendship. When we fail to build bridges and empower those most deeply affected by conflicts, “moving forward” actually means leaving scores of people in the dust. In the long run, that can perpetuate old inequities and create new ones, leaving a society in the same position as before, or worse.

Northern Ireland and its peace process no longer dominate media cycles like it did throughout the 20th century. International attention on the region climaxed with the ratification of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (1998), which ended the Troubles and created the conditions for Mitchell Scholars, including me, to be sent to this wee island. Progress on the island, both positive and negative, has advanced in relative silence. Little attention is given to those who were adversely affected by the Troubles now that the armed campaigns have been suspended, even though their Troubles-related needs persist. Even less is given to the countless civil society organizations whose cross-community education programs, art initiatives, and history projects are on the cutting edge of bottom-up peacebuilding. Positive progress seldom makes headlines, while incidents of violence are quickly circulated around the world. Peace, like violence, is a verb. It does not suddenly arrive when a treaty is ratified. Peace is time-consuming, painful, introspective, and dynamic. But, over time, small gains accumulate to one day reveal a more peaceful and inclusive society. Like our individual lives, that society resembles a vibrant mosaic.

Despite the remaining obstacles to peace, Belfast has made tremendous progress since 1998. The fact that widespread violence is no longer a feature of daily life is a tremendous step in the right direction. Another positive development is that unionists and nationalists share power in an Assembly that, despite its repeated suspensions, is as productive as the other devolved United Kingdom legislatures (in terms of legislative output; see McEvoy & McCulloch, 2023, p. 25). The population of Northern Ireland has also been growing and changing since 1998. That change has primarily been driven by an influx of non-British Isles immigrants and the growing tendency, particularly among young people, to not identify as strictly unionist or nationalist. These indicate a society in which sectarianism is softening, if not eroding, to a certain extent, and one that can tackle bread and butter issues.

Evidence of positive change was most clearly illustrated to me when Little Amal visited Belfast earlier in May. This large puppet, depicting a Syrian girl in search of her mother, personifies human rights and the issues faced by displaced people worldwide. On behalf of Shared Future News, I provided coverage of Little Amal’s stops at Custom House Square, the Shankill/Falls peace line, and Colin Glen. The puppet expressed a surprising depth of emotion that was powerful in its own right, but was amplified by the people and places with which she interacted. In what I feel was the most memorable moment, Little Amal accompanied two groups of schoolchildren (one from the Shankill Road and one from the Falls Road) to the peace line interface, where they met, hugged, and chatted for a time, before returning to their respective sides. I discerned at least three levels of symbolism from this event: (1) the schoolchildren’s enthusiasm showed there is hope for sustainable cooperation and further change; (2) their return to their respective communities showed that segregation, and more general polarization patterns, still influence young minds, and; (3) collaborating on global, cross-community issues, like migration, to build bridges is an immense opportunity. Overall, watching the people of Belfast welcome Little Amal with open arms inspired hope and brought tears to my eyes. I consider it to be the most valuable out-of-classroom experience I had on the island, which I expect to linger in my memory long after I leave here.

I spent the last couple of months finishing up my courses. Now, I turn to my dissertation research, which will consume the rest of my summer. Thankfully, the last couple of weeks helped me settle into the right mindset for that work. I just spent the greatest moments of my Mitchell year with my family, the most important people in my life, in this home of mine. Today, I sent my grandma Marie, my cousin Joey, my brother Liam, and his girlfriend Hannah back to California following their seven-day stay on the island. We spent one day in Dublin and another on a bus tour of the northern coast, but we otherwise spent our time sightseeing in Belfast. I had seen most of our stops already, but touring them in the company of my family imparted a whole new meaning that I’ll cherish forever. This week, in the words of Sally Rooney, felt “like watching a perfect goal, like the rustling movement of light through leaves, a phrase of music from the window of a passing car. Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything” (Normal People, p. 228). I was also reminded of everything I felt on my own first visit to Belfast, which brought a goofy grin to my face all weekend.

It’s fitting that I wrote most of this blog post in the café of Belfast City Hall, the first building to catch my eye in 2019. I can’t remember any quotes from that first visit to the city, or anything else from that entire trip, to be frank. Neither can I pinpoint the exact moment my passions, tools, and questions converged on this spot of green. But in Cacophony of Bone, Kerri ní Dochartaigh offers a great suggestion to help me remember the experience: “REMEMBER THE LIGHT” (p. 27). I remember the way the light shimmered in the puddles of that rainy day during 2019. The glint of the graffitied peace walls. The bold colors of the flags, banners, murals, and memorials dotting the city’s segregated neighborhoods. The rays of sunshine trying, futilely, to break through the dreary overcast that so heavily coated the sky. I can’t articulate why, but those images stick with me today, dredging up every possible emotion one could experience. The urge to preserve those moments is a major reason why I followed in my dad’s footsteps and stepped up my photography game in Ireland.

Photography and peacebuilding have something in common, I’ve discovered: they both depend on light. A camera, technically, captures refracted light to digitally preserve as an image; that device also has to be operated by a photographer, who needs a combination of vision, timing, contextual understanding, and luck to capture a decent image. In much the same way, peacebuilding depends on light. The process is based on the assumption that a brighter future stretches ahead; one that former foes can share together; one that is inclusive, equitable, captivating, and peaceful. It also depends on allies of peace — us — to give what we can towards visualizing and producing that very future. Light is a tool that, when shed on the past, the present, and everything which is good, changes everything. And, to quote Victor Hugo, “even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise” (Les Misérables). Light conquers all.

Remember the light.

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Adventures, Science, Life Lessons, and Growing

Wow, it is really hard to believe that this is my last blog post as I finish up my Mitchell Year. As I sit down to write about the highlights since my last blog post, I am overcome with an immense sense of growth, self-knowing, and gratitude.

The adventures: Outside of my coursework and lab-work, I have taken every opportunity to get out into the country and appreciate the beauty that surrounds me. Below, I have attached some snaps from my favorite adventures: Glendalough in Wicklow, the Antrim coast, Giant’s Causeway, Belfast, Glenstal Abbey, and in and around Dublin.

Out of all of these adventures, climbing the mountains of Wicklow were incredibly special. I love hiking and physical challenges, and I have found that hiking through the mountains of Glendalough taught me many things that are reflective of my experience in Ireland: (1) Appreciate the incredible beauty of what surrounds me; (2) The view is always stunning at the top of any summit, but the climb is often just as – if not more – beautiful; (3) you can connect with people everywhere.

On point #1, Ireland by far is the most beautiful country I have ever been in. I see the beauty of nature everywhere, and that is a learned skill that I am excited to take with me wherever I go. From the wildflowers that bloom in the courtyard of St. James’s hospital to the stunning landscape of Glendalough, nature has been truly nourishing to my soul.

On point #2, growth and “climbing” any mountain (mental, physical, or professional) can be daunting and we are so often looking forward to getting to the top. However, all of my hiking has reminded me that the climb can be just as beautiful and to cherish every moment. While this is an easy task to do in a place as gorgeous as Wicklow, I think its a lesson that can be applied on any life journey.

And point #3, no matter what country we are from, our humanity unites us. During the course of my hikes or my day to day life, I have found myself talking to fellow hikers or Dublin city-folk every single day. You never know how much a smile or a simple conversation can teach you and make you feel connected to your location. I have met people from all over the world with many different life experiences. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there or chat or make friends in new environments!

The science: My program has been extremely rigorous, but extremely rewarding. My research has now contributed to the development of a new biomarker (called C3) for esophageal cancer (this is what my dissertation work is on)!

I also will have a published first-author literature review getting published in Cancer Letters this summer. Something I am most proud of however, is helping to establish a formal research collaboration between Duke-Trinity-and UCD. I was fortunate enough to receive a Mitchell Scholarship, my mentors were able to meet and form a research collaboration that has now received funding from the National Cancer Institute in the U.S. I can now say for certain that I will be traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Ireland for years to come as I would with my collaborators.

I feel so grateful to have met incredible mentors and students, and have had the opportunity to develop lifelong friendships and relationships.

The Mitchells: Every time I have been around any of the Mitchell Scholars I am always in awe of how brilliant, kind, and interesting everyone is. Although it is bittersweet to be leaving the island soon, I can’t wait to watch what everyone accomplishes with their precious lives and bright minds, and desire to do good in the world. It inspires me more than they can every know.

While I will be preparing to apply to medical school in the coming months, and I don’t yet know where the road ahead will take me, I know that a piece of me will be in Ireland for the rest of my life, and I will be back. I am filled with so much gratitude, and when I look back on my life, this will be one of the experiences that shaped me the most.

Thank you to Trina and everyone who helps run the Mitchell program, I owe this chapter of my life story to you!

Until next time, Slán go fóill

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Home, Family, Faith, and Love

The value of this year in my journey and life now seems indescribable and difficult to express in words. I feel a sense of rooted connectedness and attachment to this place far away that’s been nurtured from my time there. This year has given me something so special, so beautiful, and so important that it will forever stay close to my heart.

Reflecting on the natural moments, the memories, and the kindness, compassion, affection, care, and love feels endearing. I’ve grown in ways that I myself did not expect. Flying home to Washington D.C. last week, I felt conflicted. I hadn’t felt this conflict back in December when I had flown home to Florida over winter break, but this time felt different. I was very much excited to come home, but at the same time, in the airport, I had felt this emotional tug and nostalgia because – by chance or by fate – I had found home and family in this place faraway. Home is where the heart finds solace, a sense of rootedness and belonging. Home to me will always be where my family is, and so, this year, what’s considered home to me has grown.

So much has happened these past months, both abroad and back in the US. My life experiences feel serendipitous, and I’m in awe of what’s happened as well as what this year has given me. Again, by chance or by fate, it was the spontaneous moments and coincidences that brought me the most beautiful stories, memories, experiences, and friendships. Missing a certain flight or taking a certain train, I somehow ended up at exactly the “right” station, at exactly the “right” place, and exactly at the “right” time. I’ll be honest – I wish I did a better job of writing down, blogging, and documenting some of the best stories, adventures, and moments, but also, I needed to live in the moments. Now, some of the most awesome and greatest moments will last as memories.

But there are also the moments that fade as I find myself already forgetting to remember all the people and connections I made along the way. For example, lost and extremely cold one frigid night, not knowing how to get to the airport from the city center led to a conversation with a security guard at a random hotel in Dublin from 2 am to 5 am about life and the ‘Wire’ before a 7 am flight.

On an unrelated different flight, I met a veteran who had served for over 15 years for the U.S. military, but his upbringing had been entirely in Ireland. He was publishing a book about what it was like being from Ireland and then becoming accustomed to the U.S. military. He told me his stories, showed me a few clips from films he acted in, and then we synced our plane screens together to watch “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant,” a military movie he had already watched, but wanted to watch it again with me.

There were countless other moments and people I met who each had their own stories: a music video director from Paris because I was hungry at 2 am; a young waitress in a coffee shop who gave me a blanket, a free Shirley temple (cherry-Sprite), and a place to charge my phone in the middle of the night; a family from Newcastle, England who took care of me and wanted me to visit so that we could go to a game; a group from Brazil who needed help knowing which train to take; to a family from Sardinia on the train because their baby wouldn’t stop staring at me; to the groups of people I met who stayed up with me all night at the airport – once because a flight was missed, and the other because the airport gates don’t open until the morning; and to the many more moments and connections that were made in such spontaneous situations over the year, giving me so many to stay in touch with and hundreds of stories to tell. Encountering this universal kindness and compassion was incredibly inspiring, encouraging, and uplifting.

A lot of change has happened, and while I was away, even more change has happened in my life and the world as well. But the time for me to return home has approached fast, and there is much that awaits me. I experienced and learned so much about myself, about people, and about the world around me. I learned diverse aspects of different cultures and lifestyles, and I’ve even expanded my learning of another language. The year was packed, and there’s much to reflect on, but not enough space to fit it all in. I had travelled a lot to other cities and countries for the first time: London, Edinburgh, Paris, Barcelona, (Cancun during winter break), etc., and the countries of Luxembourg, Germany, Italy, and Portugal, etc. It was some of the people I met and some of the connections, experiences, memories, and stories I made that’ll be remembered and treasured most.

Yet what I will always truly cherish the most from this year close to my heart is home, family, faith, and love, which is part of a special story of its own. I’m eternally grateful for what this year has given me, and I feel a deeper sense of rooted connection to the world around me. The people of the village that made me the person I am today is strong; looking out and caring for one another. I now feel more motivated than ever to be the best version of myself and continue on my journey with purpose towards the impact and legacy I want to have, to being the leader I want to be. I also find joy in getting lost in loving the world and getting to also know the world we are working hard to save. I want to continue to be spirited and curious, to learn, to innovate and to create. I feel emboldened to take action, and determined for my motivation to be more, do more, and inspire more.

Home on both sides of the Atlantic, To the Future, The Story Continues
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