Yesterday, I stepped into the Dublin Airport, confused and exhausted after travelling from Hanoi, Vietnam. The clock on the wall said 11am, my phone said 1pm, and my mind and rumbling stomach said 6pm, almost dinner time. And I had roughly four hours to spend in the airport before boarding a plane again, this time to Cambridge for our final retreat as the 2019 Class of Mitchell Scholars.
Much like the trip to Cambridge will be the capstone on our Mitchell year, the trip to Hanoi was the capstone of the coursework for my M.A. Geography from UCD. And much like being a Mitchell means acting as a representative of the U.S. in Ireland, the trip to Hanoi meant acting as a representative of Ireland in Vietnam. Irish Aid had provided funding for ten of us – nine students and our professor – to undertake a two week research partnership with Hanoi University (HANU). Each us of joined with either a Hanoi-based NGO or an undergraduate student from HANU for a self-directed, fieldwork-based project. Our topics ranged from informal housing to social enterprise to deforestation, but worked to build the relationships, friendships, and trust necessary for long-term partnership between our universities.
Having returned from Hanoi, and currently in Cambridge, I feel that both trips symbolize our current transition time. It doesn’t feel long ago that I arrived at UCD, excited and nervous for the year ahead. Now, it is time for us to head off one by one to the next thing – jobs, PhDs, family, more travel. The thought makes me excited and nervous all over again as I consider what it means to be a Mitchell alum.
Placing that question in the context of my recent and current trip, I think that the real question to be taken from the year here is – how do I act as a representative of my place, values, and passions no matter where I go? And as I think about the lessons that help answer that question, I go back to one brief but strong memory from my time in Hanoi.
On our third night, we had kicked the jetlag and set out for a bar recommended by one of our student partners. The only problem – it lay across eight lanes of raging, chaotic traffic. We stood on the curb, frightened and uncertain, until a young Vietnamese man approached and asked if we needed help. He organized us into a mass and helped us simply step into the street, walking steadily with one hand extended towards the oncoming cars and motorbikes. They split around us with surreal smoothness. Once we reached the other side, our guide shook all of our grateful hands and headed back across the street alone.
That man showed us that representing your place, values, and passions means more than being brave, flexible, and accepting in the face of the unknown. It means recognizing that what is familiar to you may be intimidating to others and offering help accordingly. It means both offering and accepting help with genuine gratitude. It means understanding that in every place we are both a representative of somewhere and a visitor to somewhere. I will hold onto these lessons for my last two months in Dublin and beyond. I will hold onto them with the understanding that although it is time for us to leave Ireland, the 2019 Mitchell alumni are ready to spread out to new places.