Sinking In, Running Around

I’ll admit to a slow start.

I arrived in Belfast with the standard hopes-and-dreams of any student arriving in a new country to study. Perhaps being in the field of human rights law, I was a bit more starry-eyed and a bit more determined to get right down to business than some. In any event, I dreamed up some simple and essential goals for this year:

1. Have fun
2. Travel
3. Produce good academic work, both in and out of class
4. Build friendships and maintain relationships
5. Learn something completely new (and awesome)

My first month in Northern Ireland was more difficult than I’d imagined it would be. I couldn’t quite find my access point into the energy and thriving life of the city. Belfast is a community crowded with cultural events, from theater and music to events related to the Troubles. I wanted to learn about everything, and to get right to the heart of the city in every way I could. But somehow I felt blocked and frustrated.

There’s a different culture here than in the US, and while people are extremely friendly, they aren’t so anxious to have you over for dinner or to build strong intimate connections. Added to this was my surprising academic schedule that gave me only four hours of class a week. After six years of friendships, study, leadership, and volunteering in Oregon, I felt pretty lost in unscheduled time.

All that changed two weeks ago. First, I met a professor with a shared interest in working with incarcerated individuals, and he directed me to some organizations in town. Second, the Mitchell director introduced me (via email) to a BBC journalist who not only had me shadow her at the broadcasting house but also introduced me to some friends in need of research assistance and early-morning walking partners. As my days filled up, I’ve found more and more peers in my program who are anxious to meet outside of class hours for study dates and coffee. We’ll be putting an event together for Human Rights Day in December.

Now it looks like I’ll be racing around from now until Christmas.

The goals I initially came up with were good ones: They’ve given me the flexibility to adjust to my new home here in Belfast, and to a culture shock that is rapidly giving way to comfort.  They’ve allowed me to reflect on the differences between my time in Northern Ireland and my experiences living and working in Central and South America, as well as various places in the US. I’ve had a lot to learn, and suddenly, I’m off.

In addition to becoming friends with my fellow Mitchells and spending a good amount of time traveling and hiking in beautiful places, I’ve made some serious progress on the goal of learning something new, which has led me to my most ridiculous — and satisfying — activities to date: I learned to surf (badly) with fellow Mitchell Scholar Ashleen Williams up in the North Atlantic, and I’ve taken ceili Irish dancing classes through the university. Think Riverdance meets square dancing, and you’ve got the right idea.

I can’t wait to see what Belfast will bring me next.

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