Reflections on My Study Abroad: Ireland & the Hague

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Student at Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

Being a part of a multiracial family (European, Hispanic, and Persian) developed my sense of international awareness at a young age. This crossroads of cultures that was present in my home life instilled in me an appreciation and infatuation with everything foreign. When I began studying at university I immediately declared my major in International/Global Studies. I didn’t know what exactly I would do with the degree, but I knew I wanted to be involved in something bigger than myself (I mean, it can’t get much bigger than the world, right? And outer space isn’t really my thing…). For me, it wasn’t just about the enticing international lifestyle, but about the feeling of potentially having my hands in whatever it is that makes this big, beautiful globe spin around- how we, despite our differences and conflicts, manage to come together to find solutions and coexist peacefully. Obviously, this doesn’t happen all the time; war is arguably a part of human nature. But I wanted to contribute in some way, alongside those who work towards that goal every day. And thus, Study Abroad was a no-brainer. However, Study Abroad was also an intimidating thought. How could I possibly finance such an expensive opportunity? This question held me back for years.

Carmen studying abroadAnd then I did something a little crazy. I went to Europe. On a complete whim, I cleaned out my savings account and during Spring Break of my sophomore year I backpacked through six European countries. It was the scariest and most exhilarating thing I ever did.  It may not have been my dream Study Abroad adventure, but it took me down a path from which I could not return- I had caught the notorious “travel bug.”

 I knew that through the university was the best way for me to go abroad again. But again (since I had previously vaporized my bank accounts), finance was the source of my hesitation. Then, in the last weeks of my junior year, a professor from the UW Seattle campus dropped into my Intro to Human Rights class. He gave a presentation on his yearly Study Abroad program to Ireland and The Netherlands. The focus of his program was international justice, a topic that I had recently found fascination in. By the end of his presentation I decided that if I was going to apply to any Study Abroad opportunity, it would be this one. So I applied. I didn’t think about the costs or my unemployment at the time. I just did it, if only to see what happened.

When I got the acceptance email, I called my mother to tell her the news and to get advice on the financial aspect. I will never forget what she said, and it is a phrase that I continue to tell myself in similar situations: “You make it work.” Simple, right? Possibly easier said than done, as well. But whenever I would begin worrying about how I was going to pay for the program and other expenses, I would again tell myself, “You got accepted; now you have to make it work.” And I did make it work. I got my financial aid sorted out with an adviser, I got a summer job, and I even created a fundraiser for my family to donate money towards my travel plans. I also applied for a scholarship, but wasn’t successful in that endeavor, which was a disappointing set back. But still, I made it work.

Arriving in Ireland was surreal. Possibly because I was in a permanent daze from the severe jetlag I was experiencing. Galway, the small and quaint university city that we stayed in for the first leg of the program, stole all of our hearts. Seated on the eastern coast of the island, the air was salty and when it rained there were no rain drops- instead it was a mist that made you feel as if you were inside of a cloud.

My group and I spent our time attending seminars and lectures at The Irish Centre for Human Rights, which calls this cozy city home. There we met professors and professionals in the field of international justice, even Chief Justice Teresa Doherty, an Irish judge who presided over the trial and prosecution of Charles Taylor in the Special Court for the Sierra Leone. We also met and dined with the Irish Defense Force at the barracks and learned about Ireland’s roles in UN peacekeeping missions around the world.  We later traveled to Dublin, a bigger and much more unruly city than little Galway, where we stayed a few days to visit their Four Courts and get a little tourist time in at the Guinness and Jameson factories.

We then made our way to The Hague, a beautiful Dutch city where bicyclists always have right of way and the beauty of the golden, sandy beaches would surprise you. It was this city, and our activities here, that the entire program was building up to. We didn’t just visit the several international courts that we had been studying while in Ireland, we were actual audience to their proceedings. For example, at the Yugoslav Tribunals we sat as viewers of the courtroom, face-to-face with Ratko Mladic, a Serbian military leader being tried for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Besides witnessing these trials we also met and dined with prosecuting and defending attorneys, with whom we conversed about their roles and challenges in the international courts.

My Study Abroad program was everything I expected it would be and so much more. Not only did I experience things that I would have never had the chance to experience without this program, but I also made contacts and lifelong friends abroad. The knowledge I gained from the places I went and the people I met is invaluable to me, and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

 My adventure, however, did not end there.  After the conclusion of my program and we all had said our good-byes and vowed to keep in-touch, I made my way to Luxembourg. Luxembourg City is home to a WWII American Memorial Cemetery. It is the resting place of my great grandfather, who died in France in the Battle of the Bulge. Being that my entire family lives in the United States, no one had ever visited his grave before. This is why I made it a goal of my stay in Europe to visit this city and reunite my family with our lost ancestor.

When I had finished spending time at the cemetery, I got on a plane and flew from Luxembourg City to Oslo, Norway where I stayed with some friends who are residents of this northern paradise. Norway is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited due to its vast and rugged landscapes and its rich cultural history. It is also a nation whose economy and standard of living is one of the most advanced and sought after in the world. My friends gave me tours of the city during my days there, making visits to parks, museums, universities, night clubs, and even the Norwegian opera. Oslo captivated me - a hold from which I would never be released. But despite this newfound love, after four weeks traveling abroad, I was ready to go home. I was exhausted and missed my family dearly. My adventure was finally at an end.

Now, having had time to look back on my experiences abroad, I have one huge regret; I kick myself every day for waiting so long to pursue Study Abroad. If I had begun this endeavor in my sophomore year I could have fit at least two Study Abroad opportunities into my college career. Instead I am scrambling to try and fit just one more in before I graduate. I met a fellow student on my program who had studied abroad twice before the one we were on. That is at least three Study Abroad adventures she has had! If there is one thing that I want other students to take away from my experience, it is to not wait one more day to start going after that Study Abroad dream. Do it now. Because I promise- you will find yourself addicted.