Belfast with Me Always

When I applied to spend a year in Belfast, I had a decent idea of what I thought I would be getting. I had been to Belfast before and made great friends, both Irish and American. When I returned to Belfast a year later, I found the same people in the same places ready to welcome me again. But when I returned this time, I found no one where I left them. Covid restrictions made meeting new people very difficult, and I was discouraged knowing how impactful these friendships could be. I was worried that without the ability to make casual friends in pubs, or go to friends’ houses for dinner, this time in Belfast would be less impactful, and I would have a more difficult time understanding my purpose here.

A few weeks after the semester began, all of my classes moved online due to Covid’s increasing presence in Belfast and Northern Ireland. I quickly found a silver lining brought on by much of my alone time. For the first time in years, all I had to focus on was my studying and thinking. I was consumed by questions of justice, ethics, and care in education, healthcare, and work for people with intellectual disability. Most gripping was considering experiences of women who receive prenatal diagnoses of Down syndrome. This is an issue that continues to gain public attention, especially with the recent publication of “The Last Children of Down Syndrome” in The Atlantic. The article describes increases in selective termination rates in cases of prenatal diagnoses of Down syndrome. My thinking found its way into final assignments and even spurred discussion with students in a class at the University of Mississippi through former Mitchell Scholar, Ashleen Williams.

I returned home to Knoxville for the holidays and had the opportunity to reflect on and share my experiences from the fall. Though my experience was entirely different from the first two experiences in Belfast that were full of new friends and always spent out exploring new places, it was just as meaningful—perhaps even more so—in its quietness, and its significance only continues to grow.

With the flexibility of virtual classes, my boyfriend, Evan, came to join me in Belfast several weeks into the fall. As Evan and I explored what we could of Belfast, I was able to see Belfast through new eyes, and we got to focus on one another during a time where all other distractions of daily living were removed—yet another of the pandemic’s unexpected silver linings.

Belfast taught us lessons during such a formative time of our relationship that we will carry with us forever. To be sure, shortly after we returned home for the holidays, Evan and I got engaged with a ring we found in Belfast. Now, Belfast will be with both of us always. Always remembering the lessons of warmth and hospitality her people taught us; always remembering the lessons from challenges of adapting to life in a new place with each other.

Evan and I are now back in Belfast and planning a wedding that will pay homage to our time here. Belfast will forever be part of our lives and embedded in the memories of what have been some of our best times together.

An engagement photo of Evan and me in a classic South Knoxville spot on the river just before it reaches Neyland Stadium of the Tennessee Volunteers.
A photo of my engagement ring in front of Belfast City Hall lit up for Christmas.
A post-engagement surprise from Ainsley, the dear (American) friend I made the last time I was in Belfast, who continues to be a big part of my life and sharer of many great Belfast memories.
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