June 2006 Reflection

In the months before I left for Northern Ireland, I tried my best to deflect any questions about my post-Ireland life.

What’s next in store for you, Carie?

Any ideas where you’ll be next September?

I shrugged the questions off, deciding, instead, to be mysterious. “Oh, we’ll just have to see,” I’d say. Or I’d just toss up my hands and exclaim, ‘Who knows?!?’

Truth is, I had no clue.

I imagined, however, that the answer was not far away. That if I could just get away from my college life, from the expectations of my family, my advisors, or my friends, that it would all become clear. That the pieces would magically fall into place in my mind. “Eureka!” I would shout one evening in the pub as I slapped the fella next to me on the back. “That’s it!” And so, I would return with The Plan.

As the final weeks of my time in Northern Ireland wind down, however, I have started to accept the fact that The Plan may be just as elusive as ever.

I shared my plight with Michelle, a past Mitchell Scholar, at the reunion in Dublin last week when she made the mistake of asking about my Mitchell year and plans for the future. Finally, I could talk about the year with someone who had both an intimate understanding of the experience and a few years of hindsight. As she patiently listened, I rambled on about the highlights of the year and my plan(s) for the future. “I really have no clue,” I said as I’m sure her eyes started to glaze over. I shared that living in Northern Ireland has rekindled my love for journalism and made me ready to start pushing my foot in the door wherever there’s an opening. I also told her that a year studying Irish history has made me ready to do a Ph.D. Not in American history as I’ve always planned, but in Irish history. Then I explained that my imagination has been running wild with ideas for fiction writing and that I’d like to spend some time committing those to paper before jumping into a career that will leave little time for thinking. And finally, I said with a shrug, sometimes I genuinely couldn’t wait to jump into the non-profit sector, to take over grant writing and volunteer development at my family’s children’s zoo.

As those final words hung in the air, I tried to gauge her reaction. I prepared myself for the eventual polite nod and exhale of breath. “Whew,” I was sure she would say. “Sounds like you have a lot of thinking to do.”

But instead, she nodded, thoughtfully, and said, “Sounds like this year has been quite invigorating for you.”

Invigorating. I hadn’t thought about it like that yet. Instead, while wading through the various plans that came across my mind in a day’s time, I couldn’t help but worry that a year in Ireland had done more to muddle my future than to disentangle it. After a few days consideration, however, I realized just how right Michelle was. Invigorating really is the only word to describe the past nine months.

For the first time in many years, I’ve had the chance to simply breathe this year. To step away from the jumble of activities, offices, and commitments that dominated my undergraduate career. Thanks to the more relaxed nature of my class schedule and Northern Ireland, in general, and my decision to focus my extra time on one specific project (Habitat for Humanity), I’ve found myself with more free time than ever before. To fill those hours, I’ve read the paper, I’ve explored Derry and Northern Ireland, I’ve traveled across Europe, and I’ve taken time to just relax with a pint, a handful of friends, and my own racing mind. In those extra hours, I’ve found inspiration in conversations with strangers, in observing people on the street, or in experiencing a new culture. It’s no wonder, perhaps, that the future seems so limitless.

Meeting the Mitchell Scholars, as well, has been invigorating. I’m so thankful that we’re such a diverse bunch and that everyone has been so genuinely open and friendly. By becoming friends with the scholars, I’ve learned to respect and admire each of them for their unique interests and drive. I’d love to take away a little bit of their personalities for myself – even if its just learning to speak up for myself and to be firm in my views in a group of people that don’t share them or to appreciate a bit more of the musical side of life. Some of my favorite memories from the past year are from pubs in Belfast, Christmas markets in Germany, the Wednesday night quiz team, hill walks, or Thanksgiving football matches, thanks to the scholars. I genuinely hope we’ll all remain friends after this year has ended. I’ve also been fortunate to have had an amazing group of friends and people in Derry, from the students in my class to my flatmates. They’ve all made Derry feel like home and I’m certain that the things I’ll miss most will be those ordinary nights when we all sat around the kitchen table playing Risk or just chatting about life in general.

Just living in Northern Ireland has been invigorating. I can hardly remember what I expected Derry to be like but I’m constantly perplexed by its complexities. I feel fortunate to have lived in Northern Ireland now when a final peace agreement seems attainable yet society is still so divided. I’m not sure I ever would have understood what ‘peace’ is like in Northern Ireland (not that I necessarily do now) without actually seeing the peace walls, touching the murals, or sitting down with people from the most divided communities. It’s an invaluable perspective that I feel fortunate to have. I’ll be starting my master’s thesis over the summer, a look at political ballads in 19th century Belfast. It’s a far cry from my original research intent (civil rights) but I hope it sheds light on Belfast during a time of political change. If there’s anything I’ve learned from studying in Northern Ireland, it’s that life, politics, and history are inextricably entwined. You certainly can’t expect to understand the Troubles without some basic understanding of the last 400 years or some acknowledgement of things like shared remembrance and public memory.

My Habitat work is drawing to a close and it remains one of the highlights of my time in Northern Ireland. Working on the booklet has provided access to the very people who live life in a ‘post-conflict’ society. It’s also given me the chance to watch Habitat’s work in action and to be invigorated by their vision for peace and their dedication to realizing it.

This last reflection could only close with sincere thanks to the US-Ireland Alliance, Dell, Trina, and Mary Lou, and the numerous sponsors who make the Mitchell Scholarship possible. I’ve been touched by the way that both the staff and the board members go out of their way to make sure that we make the most of our experiences. I’ll always be thankful for the numerous phone calls and e-mails exchanged to help me line up a radio internship and the great advice given about future career plans. Not to mention the many laughs exchanged when Trina and Mary Lou came to visit. I feel lucky that we had the chance to inaugurate Mary Lou to the program and fortunate that the program has such dedicated, passionate, and fun leaders. It really does make the difference.

I’m also thankful to USIT, for their generosity has given me the chance to see more of Europe than I ever thought possible. Before coming to Derry, I’d only ventured ‘across the pond’ once, to spend a week in London. I’ll go home having set foot in more than 12 different countries. With USIT’s help, I had the chance to kayak a fjord in Norway, sled the Alps in Switzerland, watch Shakespeare live at the Globe, grimace as a monkey tried to steal my car antennae in Gibralter, and laugh as my boyfriend rolled, head first, down Cooper’s Hill in Gloustershire while chasing a wheel of English cheese. The staff has always been incredibly patient and helpful and I can’t thank them enough.

In my remaining time in Ireland, I hope to simply slow down and enjoy my last few weeks in Derry. (Minus a holiday over to Croatia – I had to get sun at some point!) I imagined that I’d be traveling my last month, trying to fit it all in. On the contrary, I’ll be holing up in Derry with my friends, trying to savor the last bits of this year before coming up with The Plan for next year.

What is it? I guess the only answer is to watch this space…

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