Cross Border Observations

My Human Rights Law program is split between Queen’s University in Belfast and the National University of Ireland in Galway. This means that my Mitchell year has been divided North and South, with two different cities, cohorts, currencies, and cultures. After four months in Belfast and almost two now in Galway I can say confidently that yes, there really is a difference.

The experiences are different and the opportunities, therefore, are also radically different. In Belfast I had two internships and was surrounded constantly by talk which provided insight into conflict resolution and human rights in post-conflict society. Most people I met were somehow involved in an organization or political work, and everyone overflowed with opinions. I miss the grit and humor in Belfast, and the handling of the sometimes-grim reality. And the flip side also: the vibrancy of the culture and music and festivals that are a positive response to painful recent histories.

But there are also things I don’t miss about Belfast.

Some of this has to do entirely with personal style and my individual quirks. Briefly, I don’t miss classrooms of silent students, I don’t miss feeling out of place in my flat shoes and makeup-free face just to go to a lecture, and I don’t miss the sense that nearly everyone around me came from Belfast and had no aspirations to ever leave. Queen’s is a clannish place, at least in the Law school, and there is something very isolating in the sense that most people hope to never leave.

My experience in Galway is a lot like coming home. This is an international city, balancing the status of a small place on the Western end of Ireland with the diversity of student body and local population. The students around me offer opinions in classes and mostly seem to aspire to NGO work, UN involvement, and a variety of work overseas and here in Ireland. There is an energy to campus which is deeply satisfying, and a breadth of interests in the classroom that I find inspiring.

Galway is not gritty. It’s artsy. Hippie, basically. It’s an easy place for me to live; I fit here.

Again, I don’t want to harp on what didn’t fit for me in Belfast. I made connections there that I maintain now: individuals and organizations working in conflict resolution, ex-prisoner education, and local social issues. I haven’t yet found any connections to match these in Galway. I also made deep friendships in Belfast, although mostly not at Queen’s and generally in what you might term the counter-culture of Belfast.

I came here to be a student, and there are some stark differences between Queens and Galway that I recognize had limited me at Queen’s.   Classes at NUIG are far more discussion based and in-depth, with an assumed knowledge and discernment by students that has me scrambling for my text books. There is a constant barrage of opportunities through the Human Rights Centre: seminars, conferences, speaking events, movie nights, etc. At Queen’s, these opportunities were fewer, and the student organization generally focused on pub crawls, rather than human rights. I also find NUIG professors to be much more engaged with the students, eager to foster interests and with high expectations of individual work. It makes for more studying, but also more excitement and opportunity.

So here I am in Galway, land of pubs and seafront promenades. I’m surrounded not by political graffiti and sectarian flags, but by street art and traditional music. There’s a loss in leaving my Belfast communities and the work I was part of there. But there’s studying to be done and a full calendar of events upcoming. I’m happy to be here.

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