Thursday, March 8, 2012

Verrazano Senior Reflects on Semester Abroad in Ireland

Jonathon George, a Business Finance major in the Verrazano Class of 2012, spent the Fall 2011 semester as a CSI Exchange Ambassador in Dublin, Ireland.  Please enjoy reading Jonathon's reflection on his experience abroad.

Before I begin in earnest, I should mention that I have had a hard time getting this entry done. The biggest barrier being that I honestly had no idea where to begin. Do I start with the study abroad application process that went on seemingly forever? Do I describe my September 8th trip to JFK airport to embark on my very first plane trip? Or perhaps I should begin a couple weeks after landing so I might skip some of the less interesting material. After all, just about everyone knows what a plane trip is like, and just as well, paperwork is relatively boring. So where do I begin?
It was the beginning of sophomore year at CSI that, as far as I can remember, a friend and I began to consider the idea of studying abroad. At the time graduation still seemed distant and abstract, as if it would never happen, and we had ample time to consider our options and delay. We delayed and delayed and soon enough nearly two years had gone by and no progress had been made. During this time I had a number of experiences and encounters that prodded me towards my goal. On such experience was during the first semester of junior year with an instructor who considered leaving your "comfort zone" as being crucial to personal growth. That was the year that I truly began down the road to Ireland and what would be an unforgettable experience.
With a mere three full semesters to go, me and my accomplice began the paperwork. From passports to insurance, interviews to scholarships it seemed like every other week I was filling out another document. Trips to the International Office in building 2A were common as the pieces slowly came together. By the summer of 2011 the application process was all but complete and all that stood between me and insanity was a few months, and then my running mate dropped out of the race just like that. It was a harsh blow, but to me the point of no return had been crossed, expectations were already set, and too much work had already been done. All I had to do was sit tight as summer quickly came and went.
September arrived with little hesitation and with it my day of reckoning. I distinctly remember the morning of the 8th. Surreal in many ways, until that point the whole thing hardly seemed real. I never imagined I would actually be getting on a plane for the first time in my life, or that I would be on my own for over three months in a foreign country. That morning was a real shock as my parents rushed me off to the airport for a 5:15pm flight on Aer Lingus. Everything about that day remains crisp in my mind. Surprisingly enough, the flight itself was the source of little worry save for the takeoff. It was only when I landed in Dublin at 5:30am, collected my things and sat down for breakfast that it hit me that I was just a little crazy.
I made my way to Avalon House, the hostel I had booked one week in advance, by midday and fell asleep. I was lucky in that in my four-bed room was a couple from Chicago who gave me an introductory tour of the area that first night. It was strange, I was in the heart of Dublin, a modern capital by any definition and yet it felt incredibly alien, I never could have imagined how much like home it would feel in just a few weeks. The next day the two from Chicago left my room and Amin moved in -  a Moroccan studying English.  We quickly became friends.
The first two weeks were the hardest. By then I had moved into a twelve bed (yes that’s a 12) dorm and was spending most of my days searching for some sort of accommodation. The hostel was not a particularly bad place to be, but it was not entirely conducive to school work and feeding myself was troublesome. I was living almost entirely off of 2-Euro chicken sandwiches and the occasional Moroccan dinner courtesy of Amin.
Cliffs of Moher

To take my mind off the temporary hardship I took my first trip. The tour took my to the west coast of the country the main attraction being the stunning cliffs of Moher. Some 600 feet high the cliffs were a sight to behold. This would be the only trip that commanded a sunny day. My trip to the cliffs did more than provide me with beautiful sights, however; it also lifted me out of an emotional slump and reminded me why I was there. I say I was in a slump because with the start of class at Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) there came many headaches. The problem that I faced upon starting class on September 19th was that just about all of my courses had to be changed for one reason or another. This lead to numerous class sit-ins and was the source of great frustration for me. Eventually I ended up taking four courses, Human Resources Management, Business Information Systems, Irish Business Environment, and Entrepreneurial Studies.
It was not until near the end of September when I took my next trip. Amin came on this one as well, to county Cork in the southwest of Ireland. It was a two day excursion the highlight of which being a visit to Blarney Castle and the famed Blarney stone. An incredible experience to say the least and a nice escape from the trouble I was having with DIT.
Blarney Castle

By October both Amin and Robert, a Canadian I had befriended, left the hostel in lieu of more hospitable accommodation. I was still at Avalon much to my dismay. Every day I looked for a place to live then finally, I got my big break. October 7th I moved about two miles south of DIT and Avalon into my very own apartment. I had gotten lucky, my apartment was a good size and it was in a great neighborhood with a plethora of stores a five minute walk away. It had everything I could need to make my stay enjoyable, no television though. To make travel to and from DIT a bit easier I bought myself a bike. 
I suppose I should mention that while all of these major events were occurring I was also out and about nearly every day exploring the city, visiting every manner of attractions and landmarks, relaxing in pubs and enjoying some of the very best fish and chips available. I also kept in contact with Robert and Amin, often sharing coffee at the local cafĂ©. I spoke with my family every other day. 

Smooth Sailing
October went well in Ireland. Class was manageable and I was having a fantastic time. Living on my own was great as I relished the peace and responsibility it provided. I would often spend time walking around Grafton Street, the main shopping area, and St. Stephen's Green after class.  Other times it would be a trip to the local Dunnes department store or Tesco for some groceries.
Towards the later part of the month I went on a trip to the Wicklow mountains just south of Dublin and Glendalough, the ruins of an ancient monastery. It was by this time that I had really started to feel at home in Dublin. I knew how to get anywhere and I was taking good care of myself and my apartment. Bike rides to DIT and walks around the city center served as good exercise and groceries were inexpensive. I was seriously enjoying myself and loved the independence. Looking back, I can safely say that I am thankful I got an apartment to myself. I simply could not have seen myself in a sharing situation. Being the first time on my own for any length of time it proved to be a real test of my ability to manage money, a home and myself.
Wicklow - Glendalough

The first week of November was "review week", a week of no class during which no reviewing occurred. This week I went on three more trips. The first was to an area some forty minutes outside Dublin to a site called Newgrange. Something of the great pyramids of Ireland, Newgrange and its cousin Knowth are two ancient burial mounds that pre-date Stonehenge at 5500 years old. A few days later I hopped on a bus and went again out to the west to a place called Connemara. An area with an entirely distinct and fantastic landscape I could hardly believe I was in the same country. I stopped in Galway that same day. The second or third largest city, Galway mixed old with new but maintains the feel of a small village. It was in Galway that I purchased some quality wool products to take home. And finally, I made my way up to Northern Ireland and the very north of the country to a place called Giants Causeway. A geological remnant from the formation of Ireland, the Causeway was made up of thousands of nearly symmetrical hexagons.



Giants Causeway

I was feeling great by now, everything was going smooth, I had nothing to worry about, and I had been to just about every corner of the country. I knew that the next thing I had to do was leave the country and explore somewhere new. It should have been easy, but the second week of November things took a turn for the worse.
All Work…
By the end of the second week of November I had gone from nothing to do for school, to three group projects, one exam and what would turn out to be about 25,000 words or more worth of papers to write. I wont go into detail here as just the memory of writing those papers makes my back and wrists hurt. What's more was that at that point I only had about a month to get it all done. At the time the work seemed entirely unreasonable, but it turned out to be an engaging challenge for me and really pushed me to do some good work.

Let me just clarify that the courses I took at DIT were serious business.  I wanted to better myself as a student and better prepare myself for a career in finance and information management, so I made sure to take courses that were both different and engaging.  Not surprisingly, these kinds of courses often involve more work than their counterparts in any instutition.  Additionally, my instructors at DIT were excellent and I am grateful to have been so lucky in that regard.

I should also mention how the classroom atmosphere was, in many ways, far more relaxed than what most students may be used to.  This fact was especially evident in classes with a majority of Irish students, largely due to the nature of education at DIT that keeps students together throughout their four years of college.

Still, November proved to be the most challenging month for me.  Regardless of how many good experiences and interactions I had at DIT, I had a lot of work to do and not enough time to do it.
Time Flies
Soon enough it was Thanksgiving, my first Thanksgiving away from home and family. My attempt to cook a large chicken quite nearly resulted in disaster but in the end everything went O.K. and I successfully served a Thanksgiving dinner to the couple of friends that could make it.
The Monday after Thanksgiving I took my big trip to Scotland. I spent three days there, first arriving in Edinbourough on Ryan Air, my second flight ever. I then made my way up to the highlands in a yellow tour bus with the words "Wild and Sexy" painted on the side. I spent the first night in an awesome hostel just off of Loch Ness where I took the opportunity to try some Haggis. It was surprisingly good (until you learn what it is). The next day consisted of a trip out to the Isle of Skye, a place that looked more like Middle Earth than the United Kingdom. After that it was back to the hostel for one more night. The next day I found myself gazing across the waters of Loch Ness looking for you know what before heading back to Edinburgh and eventually back to Dublin.

Scotland again

As great as the trips I took around Ireland were, and they really were amazing, they couldn’t hold a candle to Scotland. I say this to offer some perspective on how incredible Scotland was. Unfortunately, by the time I was back in Dublin a mere two weeks remained until it was time to head back home and with copious amounts of school work still to be done Scotland would be my only venture outside of Ireland. Suffice to say, I have no regrets.
My last two weeks in Dublin felt as if I had gotten stuck in a time warp. I remember thinking to myself over a cup of Twinning's raspberry tea, "have I really been here for three months?" It had gone by in a flash, even as I write this my disbelief over where I was and what I did has yet to subside. So many distinct memories each more vivid than the last.
There was still two weeks left though, and that meant papers to write and projects to present. One of the most memorable moments I have related to DIT was when one of my lecturers returned a 4,000 word paper with well over a dozen references. I was first told that my paper was "brilliant" only to find when she handed it to me that the grade was a 76 with "Excellent!" written next to it. As you can imagine my reaction was mixed. Later, me and half the class went to Karma Stone Bar for some drinks. It was my last class.
By now, with about a week to go both Robert and Amin had left Ireland for home. My flight back was for the 18th. I headed back to Avalon House for two nights to make getting to the airport easier. The day I packed up and left my apartment was just odd to me. While it was my home for only 10 weeks, it represented much more than that. I was proud of what I did since I did not think I could do it. My apartment at 6 Cambridge Villas was the embodiment of that feeling.
Now that I had been on a plane a whopping three times, this fourth flight proved to be no big deal. I remember I watched the most recent Harry Potter on the way back. Seven hours later, and I was in New York, it seemed more alien to me than when I first landed in Dublin. The reunion with my family was a welcome one, and other than a botched meeting at the airport everything went well. It was funny though, there was hardly anything for me to say since we often spoke over the phone about my endeavors. As we drove back home through familiar terrain I could hardly believe three months had passed. 

Looking Back

My trip to Ireland did so much for me.  First and foremost, it showed me what I am capable of.  Before Ireland I doubted myself in too many ways.  I remember before leaving how I would only think of everything that could go wrong, often coming to the conclusion that I was crazy for attempting such a feat.  Remember, I had never even stepped foot on a plane before any of this.  I think I said this before, but it really was like jumping off a cliff and hoping for the best.  Turns out I didn't have to hope for anything; I made it all happen myself.

Finally, my experience has done so much to boost my confidence in myself and my abilities.  I feel that I can now take on just about any challenge that comes my way, and it has opened my mind up to career opportunities that, prior to my trip, I would have never considered.

* In the interest of keeping this short enough to be readable I left a lot out.  This could have easily turned into a book.*

Note: If you would like to hear more about Jonathon's study abroad experience and the experiences of other Verrazano students who studied abroad, please join us for the Study Abroad VELA Event on Thursday, March 22nd at 1:30 p.m. in 5N-112.

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