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b2ap3_thumbnail_P1060365.JPGI find myself here packing up my things and I honestly can't imagine how it's time to get prepare to leave already. I've done so much this semester, seen so many things and had so many new experiences, that looking at myself now I can tell there's a difference between who I am and who I was when I arrived.  That girl was a tangle of nerves and uncertainty, and now I feel so much more confident in myself and in my faith, as well as so much more enriched by experiencing another part of the globe. It's an experience like no other, and I couldn't feel more blessed to have had such an opportunity.

I've been kind of MIA from this for over a month because I was exploring the rest of the United Kingdom and Ireland. I took as many pictures in three weeks as I have the rest of the semester combined, and it's a bit surreal to me that I've gotten to go all of those places- London, Bristol, Bath, Cardiff, Inverness, Loch Ness, Stirling, Edinburgh, Dublin, Galway, and the long stretches of landscape in between. I met a myriad of new people from all over the world and saw places that some people only dream of visiting. It wasn't all butterflies and rainbows, of course, with chilly nights, strict money management, missing buses, getting lost, and getting sick. I'm happy for those parts, too, though, because if anything is a really good test of faith, traveling troubles are; like this whole semester, really, it truly was through God's grace that finding solutions to our problems were possible.

If anyone ever asks me, I would hands down recommend studying abroad. If not that, then just travel in general. You don't realize just how much more there is out there until you do; now that I've had a taste, I can't wait until I can head back out and see some other corners of the map. Study abroad makes seeing more places and spending more time, as well as learning more about the culture, more possible than simply traveling does. It also provides a setting where you grow and discover things about yourself almost as much as you do about where you are staying.  Still, though, even if it's just a trip for a week or two weeks, it is an intensely beautiful and astounding world we've been given, and if the opportunity presents itself, I can't imagine not taking the chance to explore it. 

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It's probably an understatement- and an overstated one in my posts, at that- that I really like it in Ireland. There is so much to like and it's an environment that has a lot that personally interests and excites me; the things I'm learning, the people I've met, the music, the culture, the history, the land. However, it hasn't been easy. It was a lot of work to get here in the first place, and when I got here, there was a lot I had to adjust to, but in a way I think that's probably better, and it has definitely helped me grow.

One of the hardest things for me was being on my own in a country where I knew absolutely no one. The people, both the other international students and the people from the University, as well as the locals I came into contact with, were all very nice, don't get me wrong. The thing is, I have never really been in a situation of this magnitude where I haven't had some sort of close-by support; emailing and messaging  people is great, but it's incredibly comforting to have someone physically there. At home I had friends and family, and even when I went to college freshman year, my roommate was a girl I was friends with from home. So for the most part, I've tended to have someone either with a stronger personality than mine who wasn't afraid to take the lead in new ventures, or at least someone who I knew would support me if I took that position.

Here, though, I had neither of those and had to fend for myself. If I wanted to go talk to someone, I had to make that step. If I wanted to go somewhere or do something, I had to do it, without someone to lead on and without someone as my backup. Not that I didn't make friends- I have several, and they have been such a blessing- but while we all do things together, we are all still having our own personal experiences. I also have to hold myself  completely accountable for my schedules, what I eat, when I do my schoolwork, the money I spend, etc. and I don't even have a roommate to tell me to turn the lights off and go to bed at a respectable hour.

It's been a little scary since I've always considered myself a pretty shy person, but I cannot express how gratifying it is to know you've personally reached for something you've wanted and were able to reap the benefits of that. And it really has been incredible. That's how I ended up here in the first place, that's how I made the new friends I have now, that's how I found the absolutely incredible church family I wasn't sure I'd have here, how I've seen new and wonderful things, tasted things I'd never even  heard of before,  and had all sorts of new experiences. If going away for college is a way to learn how to be independent, than studying abroad is that tenfold.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_P10405671.jpgThis week I did something I've never done before, something that I, and I'm sure many people out there, have wanted to do, even if just to cross it off their bucket list: I climbed a mountain. Not just any mountain, either, but Slieve Donard, the highest mountain not only in Northern Ireland's Mourne Mountain range, but in the country all together. I wasn't originally going to; my friends and I just wanted to go into the Mournes, because they're pretty and I know songs about them. The woman at the visitor center pointed it out, though, and informed us of its status, and we thought, "why not?" 

Well, there are a good many reasons "why not." It's exhausting and takes forever, and just when you think you're almost there, you round a bend and see a whole other portion you couldn't before, and you can almost hear the stupid mountain mocking your pain. Then you get to the top and have to hang on tight because you feel like you're going to be blown clear off the other side. I don't know if I'd ever had quite so clear a demonstration of the "fear of God," before, but the peak of that mountain painted a pretty spectacular analogy for me. By the time I was done I was spent. I had blisters, my feet were no longer positive they knew how to function properly, my legs felt like jelly and I was starving. 

And it was incredible. 

I think anyone who has ever done something like this can liken it to a life lesson or something philosophical. There are certainly enough songs out there to prove it (ex. "Climb Every Mountain," "The Climb," etc.). Most people have "mountains" in their lives and it's nice to hear songs that encourage you through them.  However, actually pounding the pavement, so to speak, definitely gives you a fresh perspective, (as well as a good deal more respect for the characters in Lord of the Rings). 

Standing on the top of Slieve Donard, I felt a lot of things. I wasn't kidding when I said I was afraid I was going to be blown away, because I was legitimately terrified; the wind was quite literally pushing me around. At one point it actually knocked me over. I wasn't kidding about the "fear of God" comment either. As petrified as I was of it, I was in complete awe of the gusts' power, and really, genuinely grateful for it the last few feet up the slope, because I wasn't positive I'd make it if not for that push.

 I also felt wonder; I don't think you can look down at the world from that high and not experience a sense of wonder. This earth is truly a beautiful creation, and this island is a chilly little paradise as far as I'm concerned. One of the biggest things I felt, though, was a crazy sense of “Wow." Wow, look at this; wow, I'm on top of a mountain; wow, wow, wow, I did it, I made it. On top of all of that, too, I knew I couldn't have done it without a little help; I kept sending silent wee prayers up periodically, and I couldn't help but send up one of thanks when that strong wind forced me up that last stretch. I hate to sound cliché, but it felt like one of those life lessons to me. I didn't think I could make it, and with His help, I did. I think that says a lot. 

So yes, it was hard; yes, it was grueling; yes, I was genuinely afraid I was going to die. There were points I wanted to stop and go no further, but I am forever going to be grateful that I kept going. Because, at the end of it all, it was amazing, and so, so worth the trouble. 

 

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One thing that most people expect when traveling is the experiencing “culture shock.” I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but Northern Ireland has been quite an interesting study in that respect. Now, maybe there are parts of Ireland that are astonishingly “other” from what I’m used to- I believe, for instance, there are certain towns and islands that, according to various travel sights’ claims, are “a step into the past;” so far, however, in Northern Ireland, Ireland in general, really, there isn’t so much of a “shock” as much as there is a feeling of “I had never realized that was how it was there,” that hits you in the midst of going about your days.

There are some obvious differences that are noticeable right off, like the wonderful accent of the Irish, using “wee” where Americans would use “small,” and parking lots are referred to as car parks; most things, though, I’ve just been picking up little by little, the longer I spend time here. Some words, for instance, are different, most often as building or street names, or when referring to the Irish government systems, because they use the original Irish language of Gaelic; funnily enough, though, the Irish students seem to have as much difficulty pronouncing those words as the foreign students do. Then there are some truly wonderful differences, such as the vast array of various chocolates, the majority of which I’ve never even heard of- peanut butter Kit Kats are one of my new favorite things. Meanwhile, fries are called chips and chips are called crisps, and fish sticks are called fish fingers.

This is one of the things about studying abroad that I am really loving. It’s a different form of learning; not academic, but rather growing and gaining understanding of another culture, just by picking up these little- sorry, “wee”- differences. It’s much subtler than if I’d gone to any number of other countries, but even so it gives me the feeling that I’m getting this beautifully different understanding of the world. Here, I feel like there is an endless supply of things to discover, like there’s no end to the mystery of the Emerald Isle. There are many magnificent sights to see and there are tantalizingly lilting voices, the things that everyone expects to see when they come here, but there are so many little details until you spend some time. It’s almost like meeting a new person, noticing their appearance and personality first; but then as you get to know them, you learn their little ticks and quirks, and that’s what makes them more, what sets them apart in your mind and your heart. It’s an experience not quite like any other- getting to know a culture.

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So, despite that I've been doing lots of sightseeing and traveling, and even though it often doesn't feel that way, I am, in fact, in Northern Ireland to study; that's what my visa says, anyway, so it must be true. So far, that part of life here has been, in itself, quite a different experience.

First, structurally, it's quite different from America, which isn't very easy to get used to. Each class has two hours of lecture and one hour of seminar  basically discussion of what we've been learning - throughout the week. Then the grading is primarily based on one 2,500 word paper and a final exam; I'm admittedly a little intimidated by that prospect. The credits are different, too, and so because of the way they transfer, I only take three classes. It's very strange for someone who's used to 18 and 19 credit semesters.

The content of the classes is really interesting to me, too. I'm taking an Irish government and politics class, Irish literature and society, and "Invented Traditions in Britain and Ireland." Despite being a history major and having taken many European history classes, there is so much that I've never learned about this country's history; there is just so much of Ireland's fascinating and tumultuous past that isn't covered in any of the classes I've taken in America. There are a lot of "basics" I've needed to look up outside of class, too, things that everyone here would already know, similar to how Americans just generally know things like who George Washington was; it's so interesting to me to see that aspect of another country, even if it does leave me feeling slightly confused occasionally during class.

I feel like I'm learning now, and I'm going to learn so much more. I'm being exposed to a view of the world unlike any that I've heard or studied before, because these people have such a different history and culture, and so therefore different ideas about things. Though I am absolutely loving seeing Ireland as a tourist, I'm also really excited that I get to experience it from an academic standpoint as well.

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