As I walk through the old campus of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, I pass beneath gray stone buildings dripping with bright red ivy and accented with arches and towers. Overtaking the ruins of Maynooth Castle at the college gate, I head down the village main street beyond pubs, banks, cafes, and a town square until I reach an iron archway that encloses a long and perfectly straight park path, flanked on either side by trees turning yellow and orange with the November frosts—trees that were a vibrant and classic Irish green upon my arrival in September. The park ends at a stone gate that opens to the rolling hills of the Carton House golf course and reveals a winding walkway over streams and past putting greens. My resting place is in front of the main house of this beautiful eighteenth-century estate.
This is one of many gorgeous destinations that I’ve found for a walk during a free morning or afternoon in Maynooth. Looking to spend a leisurely hour outside, I can walk along the Royal Canal that connects the towns of the Kildare region or stroll past a few of the many horse and sheep farms that fill the countryside surrounding the university.
Whether routine or extraordinary, it seems each moment and experience in my year as a Mitchell Scholar in Ireland presents a spectrum of exciting choices and fascinating opportunities. From taking a morning walk to designing my master’s thesis project, I make decisions daily that lead to beautiful sights, valuable knowledge and new friendships—three central facets of this year abroad.
The chance to travel, both inside of Ireland and throughout Europe, is an incredible element of the Mitchell experience, and my two months here have included trips to the west of Ireland and the Wexford Opera Festival, as well as long weekends in southern France, Belgium, and Spain. I explored Marseilles, Aix-en-Provence and Lyon with my closest childhood friend who visited for the trip, traveled across Belgium with a Flemish native who has become a good friend in my studies at Maynooth, and discovered the beauty of Barcelona with the company of five other Mitchell Scholars.
Travel has been a wonderful forum for becoming great friends with my fellow scholars, impressing upon me that building relationships during our time in Ireland is a fundamental component to the year. While we view Ireland and Europe’s greatest architecture, works of art and historical sites, our trips are marked with fascinating conversations and comedic encounters that make for truly unique memories as well as lasting friendships. I am consistently impressed with all of the scholars; we routinely and easily engage in a type of intellectual conversation and political discussion, which I cherish due to its rarity during my undergraduate years. It is wonderful to know these individuals who are passionate about their courses of study but have also cultivated entirely diversified interests (from art and philosophy to magic tricks and marathons) while maintaining caring and lighthearted personalities.
Through the International Student Society at NUI Maynooth, I have also become acquainted with a number of students from across the European continent. I’ve enjoyed endless discussions comparing almost everything in our respective countries, including our university systems, governments, media, entertainment and cuisine. And in my master’s program in Anthropology & Development, I’ve found a group of Irish students who share my passion for international issues of development and human rights and my desire to work toward a better world through scholarship.
Because of these relationships and travel experiences, it feels as though the Mitchell Scholarship is made up of a series of once-in-a-lifetime moments. Just last night, for instance, I watched the sunset sitting atop Park Guell in Barcelona. Looking out over the city blocks and the Mediterranean Coast, I had to metaphorically pinch myself to mark what a surreal reality I am living this year.
November 4, our election night, included several of these unbelievable moments. I attended an American Embassy election party with the other scholars at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin before sitting on an election panel on RTE, Ireland’s national television network, to give a young American democrat’s thoughts on the incoming election results. The experience, which I shared with a Mitchell scholar speaking from her viewpoint as an American republican, gave me the opportunity to speak about Barack Obama’s historic candidacy to an Irish television audience, answering questions on race in American politics, Iraq War withdrawal strategy, the Obama campaign’s groundbreaking use of the internet and grassroots techniques, and other areas of presidential politics that I have long been studying and discussing. I may never again watch the electoral vote tally come in from a commentary seat on live TV; it is exceptional experiences like this that have made my first eight weeks in Ireland so remarkable.
It is with a certain irony that I begin researching and working on my master’s thesis, however, since I will spend the year among individuals whose lives have been defined by a lack of opportunity and choice, rather than the endless options with which I find myself. I will be conducting field research in two communities of Congolese refugees living in Ireland, in order to study how ethnic identity is impacted by migration—focusing, in particular, on ethnic tensions and divisions that existed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and examining how they are seemingly lessened or erased by relocation.
It will be a stark and potentially difficult contrast for me to move between these realms—from my own feeling of endless opportunity into communities of individuals who fled their homes due to a lack of choice—but I find myself all the more grateful in the midst of my experiences because of this. I have always believed that with opportunity comes the responsibility to work for and with those with few prospects, and I think that my time as a Mitchell Scholar studying these difficult issues will further cement my commitment to change through scholarship and advocacy.
For now, I am looking forward to the Thanksgiving gathering of Mitchell Scholars in Dublin next week, to the visit of my closest friend from Notre Dame in December and our planned travel to both Galway and Edinburgh, and to beginning my work in two of Ireland’s refugee communities at the start of the spring semester. I will continue to experience all of these events with an overwhelming awareness of how fortunate I am to be in Ireland, travelling across the region, developing friendships and studying important issues.